ATLANTA - Expect ethics - or the lack of them - to play a starring role at the state Capitol in 2010.
Just days after House Speaker Glenn Richardson announced he would resign amid allegations of an affair with a lobbyist, there was a rush to claim the issue in advance of next year's elections. The messy Richardson saga is expected to make ethics a key focus for state lawmakers when they return to the Capitol Jan. 11.
Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican candidate for governor, and state Rep. Rob Teilhet, a Democrat running for attorney general, unveiled proposals Monday that would strengthen Georgia's ethics laws. Democratic Secretary of State candidate Gary Horlacher has also been pushing the issue since he launched his campaign several months ago.
All three plans would place the five-member state Ethics Commission in charge of investigating conflict of interest complaints against legislators. Currently, state lawmakers police themselves.
"Allowing the Legislature to police itself on ethics is like letting a criminal preside over his own court hearing," Teilhet, of Smyrna, said.
Georgia's joint legislative ethics committee in 2007 quickly dismissed a complaint filed against Richardson alleging the powerful speaker had an inappropriate relationship with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist at the same time he was pushing a $300 million pipeline bill sought by her employer.
But that issue charged back into the spotlight last week as Richardson's ex-wife, Susan, said her husband was, in fact, having a "full-out affair" with the lobbyist and she had the e-mails to prove it. Three days later Richardson - who also attempted suicide on Nov. 8 - announced he would step down.
Handel's proposal would ban any gift worth more than $25 to elected officials and expand the state's open records law to apply to the state Legislature. Lawmakers exempted themselves from that open government law, which requires the disclosure of many documents for public inspection.
"It's time we get the people's house in order," Handel said.
Horlacher said it is not enough to simply hand the complaints over the state Ethics Commission. Commission members are currently appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House and the state Senate. Horlacher wants the Georgia Supreme Court, or an independent watchdog group like Common Cause, to name the members.
"You need to get the politics out of it," he said.