Now fix it

Georgia laws make it too easy for politicians to skimp on ethics

Georgians didn’t really need a new report to tell them that the state has problems with government corruption.

 

But out it came anyway this week, from the State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. Among all U.S. states, Georgia ranked dead last and earned a grade of “F.” A thorough 330-question survey measured state laws’ efficacy in fighting corruption, promoting government openness and enforcing ethics.

According to study co-author and journalism veteran Jim Walls, the findings “underscore what can sometimes be a gaping divide between Georgia’s legal standards for public accountability, on the one hand, and everyday practice.”

In other words, our laws aren’t strong enough to stand up to chronic political chicanery.

Predictably, some state officials say the report is unfair. Look at the surveys the CPI did in 2009 and 2006, they say. Back then, Georgia respectively ranked seventh and sixth on legislative financial disclosure – but that was when the center used its own researchers. This time around, critics say, it farmed out the work to journalists who supposedly injected bias into their findings.

Former state ethics enforcement official Rick Thompson called it “a hit piece on Georgia politics.” He told the Savannah Morning News “that a fairer mark in some categories in which the new study flunked Georgia would be ‘a B or a high C.’”

So, just kind of ethical? Partially ethical? Isn’t that like a loaf of bread being partially moldy, or finding a worm in only a small part of your apple? It’s still revolting.

And so is government corruption. And folks even casually acquainted with Augusta likely could recite part of the dirty laundry list of local and state politicians from the CSRA who bent, broke or just plain ignored the law to enrich themselves.

Georgia government is encumbered with ethics issues like a boat slowly taking on water – and too many people on all sides of the debate are arguing about the number of leaks in the hull. Thank heaven there are officials in Atlanta such as Attorney General Sam Olens, who is demonstrably committed to improving government transparency and public access.

Take issue with the survey’s methodology if you want. The political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago released a study last month listing the most corrupt U.S. states, and Georgia didn’t even crack the top 10. Critics can stand by that study if it soothes their fevered brows.

But instead of standing around dickering about how rampant the problems are, or how they should be measured, accept the CPI survey for what it is – an emergency alarm.

You really don’t need to consult a 330-question survey to know that Georgia needs to take a long, hard look at how lobbyists lavish gifts on elected officials, and how money gets moved around in fits of political back-scratching, and why on Earth state legislators still are exempt from Georgia’s open records law.

The problems are obvious. Now lawmakers need to share an ironclad commitment to fix them.

 

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