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Our Views: Georgia's watchdog needs some teeth
Next director of state ethics agency needs to clarify laws, boost effort to enforce them
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To send a letter to the editor, learn the letters policy fill out a form online or send to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson

Is there hope that Georgia’s Ethics Commission can overcome its shady past and actually, you know, enforce ethics?

We remain hopeful yet also skeptical based on the recent past.

Last week, four finalists were announced for the job of director for an agency charged with enforcing the state’s laws against misuse of public and campaign money and other rule violations by government officials.

It may not be an enviable job in light of what the commission has gone through in recent years, but it is an important one. Selection of the right leader would be the first step toward getting the ethics panel back on track toward cleaning up the mess left behind by others.

The four finalists chosen from a pool of 72 applicants are: Jeffrey Ledford, director of staff support for the Workforce division of the state Department of Economic Development; Stefan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general focused on education, elections, government services and judiciary; Cheston Roney, administrator for the city of Sandy Springs Municipal Court; and Heather Ryfa, senior staff attorney in the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection.

We won’t endorse one over the others, but it wouldn’t hurt to have someone with a legal background in charge of a commission tasked with interpreting the state’s reformed ethics laws and, ideally, closing the loopholes within them.

Whoever winds up with the badge pinned on must work to re-establish the public’s trust in the commission as an independent watchdog

The past four years have been, to say the least, a lost period for ethics enforcement in Georgia. First came the firing of director Stacy Kalberman and two other staff members over what she claimed was a political vendetta tied to an investigation of Nathan Deal during his first campaign for governor. Each sued the state and won settlements totaling more than $1 million, Kalberman’s share alone surpassing the commission’s previous annual budget.

Kalberman’s successor, Holly LaBerge, entered amid charges she was merely a puppet for the governor. But she was fired as well when a judge fined her for failing to produce documents in a lawsuit against the commission. She then filed her own whistleblower suit.

It’s enough to make for a bad soap opera, and would almost seem humorous until you realize the important job this dysfunctional agency has before it. Elected and appointed government officials and candidates for office who are supposed to follow strict rules of conduct aren’t likely to comply when there are no consequences. It’s akin to taking state patrol officers with radar guns off the side of the highway — many drivers will put the pedal to the floor with impunity.

Last year, the state legislature passed new limits on the amount lawmakers can accept from lobbyists in the form of meals and gifts, an effort to tap the brakes on the goodies lavished on elected officials. Though they all insist there never is a quid pro quo when it comes to supporting lobbyists’ agendas (“No, officer, I wasn’t speeding. I never speed.”), we all know the gifts wouldn’t be worth the investment otherwise.

Yet even then, the new cap of $75 for meals and gifts includes enough workarounds to ensure the steak dinners, martinis and football tickets haven’t been mothballed quite yet. Thus, one of the commission’s key goals moving forward is to clarify and enforce these rules so there is no such ambiguity, and ideally, push lawmakers to strengthen them further in future sessions.

Lobbyists play an important role at the Gold Dome, and no one wants to keep them from providing information and advocacy for their issues. But they can do so over a cup of coffee or a barbecue sandwich just as well as a NASCAR race or golf outing, events that hardly qualify as “fact-finding” excursions.

The commission received additional funding from this year’s legislative session, $768,000 to hire eight new staffers to help deal with the backload of cases. The panel held its first productive meeting in awhile last month, but much work remains to whittle down the stack of unpunished violators.

The relationship between the legislature and ethics board always has been the fox guarding the henhouse, or at least deciding which hens are in there and how much feed they get. The agency whose job is to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire on ethics rules must be funded by the very people it polices. That means lawmakers must put aside their self interests for the common good, and most do willingly. Yet it only takes a few bad actors to foul the nest and continue to erode faith in government.

And as with all aspects of effective government, it takes a proactive citizenry to hold everyone accountable. Public officials won’t be tempted to skirt the rules if they know both the ethics commission and Georgia voters are watching them closely. Such oversight also benefits the majority of honest leaders who can do their work without the cloud of uncertain suspicion that hangs over the Capitol when no one is watching the rule-breakers.

We’ll get more ethical behavior in government when, and only when, we insist on it, first at the ballot box and then in our support for strong ethics watchdogs, public and private.

When those radar guns come out and the officers are able to enforce the rules, the speeders will have to slow down.

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