Originally created 02/21/99

Officials confront conflicts



ATLANTA -- When Capitol lobbyists received letters recently soliciting business for Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker's son, it provided fresh evidence of the potential conflicts prevalent in a system that calls on lawyers, architects, insurers and farmers to write laws and allocate billions of tax dollars.

Lobbyists and state agency heads tell stories of being approached by lawmakers peddling products and services or trying to find somebody a job.

Lawyers in the Legislature represent businesses, lobby groups and municipalities in the off-season and then file or fight bills that affect their clients during General Assembly sessions.

Farmers in the Legislature push measures that could ultimately lead to higher commodity prices or provide special tax breaks.

And doctor-legislators and insurer-legislators debate the merits of reforming medical care and insurance.

"It's tradition around here to put the person with the biggest conflict in charge of committees," said Mark Woodall, a Sierra Club lobbyist.

Augusta's Mr. Walker agrees that conflicts abound.

"This whole process is a bundle of contradictions," he said.

Still, critics charge that Mr. Walker crossed the line.

He acknowledged earlier this month that a letter stamped with his signature and bearing his picture was sent to Capitol lobbyists "introducing" the new temporary-staffing business of his son and a partner. The letter was on the stationery of Georgia Personnel Services Inc., a division of the Walker Group, the senator's company.

"They are intent on helping you locate qualified administrative assistants, staff secretaries and clerks. They can also provide you with assistance with managing your company payroll during the session," the letter said. "I'm confident you'll extend to them an opportunity to service you."

Mr. Walker said it was probably a mistake for the letter to be sent out including his legislative title. Although he took responsibility for it, the legislator said it was sent by his son Charles.

"Would I have sent a letter of introduction for my son, period? The answer is yes," Mr. Walker said. "I believe fathers have a responsibility to introduce their sons.

"Some people are members of country clubs, and they introduce people there. I don't have that."

The lawmaker added that he has sent out 100 to 200 letters of introduction for people over the years.

State Schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko said Mr. Walker has "referred three or four people my way."

However, she noted, that's not particularly unusual.

"The legislators pretty much leave me alone, with rare exceptions, except during the 40 days they are in town (for the General Assembly session)," she said.

Then, it's a parade of requests from lawmakers to buy the newest software they're peddling, support a new pet program or hire a friend.

"It's constant. If they call me and they say, `Linda I want to meet with you,' and especially if they say they want to bring somebody over, that's always somebody either looking for a job or wanting to sell something."

One lobbyist said he didn't receive Mr. Walker's letter, but quickly added, "I don't think there was any question what that meant. It was black and white."

Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, acknowledged he has voted on bills in the past that could help his architectural firm, such as school funding measures or local construction projects.

"The difference is when you specifically use your position of power for personal gain. That is wrong," Mr. Johnson said. "It's not a hard-and-fast line, it's a gray line. Everyone has to make up their own moral compass. Personally benefiting from your action is wrong."

Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta, an independent insurance agent, said such letters would generally only be sent to big-company lobbyists.

"For the small-company lobbyists, they can't do anything for you," said Mr. Williams, who added that he's never made such overtures.

While many lobbyists wouldn't speak on the record, they have plenty of tales about requests from lawmakers to hire someone or use their company's services.

Mr. Walker has been a major target of criticism -- both now and in the past -- but many lawmakers are quick to note they are paid less than $12,000 a year and have to make a living.

Disclosure laws for legislators are notoriously weak, earning Georgia a failing grade from the Center for Public Integrity last week.

In General Assembly information guides, about 15 percent of the lawmakers list their occupations as "business," "businessman," "businesswoman," or "business owner," a definition that provides Georgians with no useful information about how they make a living.

The potential for conflict abounds because, in some ways, it makes sense for citizen-lawmakers who have earned expertise in their careers to draw up or judge bills that use that knowledge.

So lawyers run the committees that review legal-issue legislation; insurance agents populate insurance committees; doctors and pharmacists serve on panels that decide health measures; farmers and agri-businessmen consider farm issues, and educators pass on school bills.

"Even though I am in the industry, I am a consumer, too," remarked Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, an insurance man who is secretary of the House Insurance Committee. "I have constituents who are consumers.

"I would hate to think of a committee that did not have any experience or knowledge in that industry."

One lawmaker who has gotten his share of jabs in the past is Rep. Tommy Smith, D-Alma, a blueberry farmer. He tried for years to exempt blueberry bushes from property taxes, and in the mid-year budget, his district is in line for a taxpayer-funded $500,000 blueberry-drying operation.

Lawyers in the General Assembly also are often targets. Gov. Roy Barnes, a lawyer who is pushing legislation to make HMOs legally liable for their health-care decisions, collected more than $2 million last year in contributions from attorneys and law firms.

House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, raised eyebrows when he sponsored legislation in 1997 banning mail-order liquor sales in Georgia, a top priority for the Beer Wholesalers Association.

His law firm represents the association, along with PAGE, Georgia's biggest teacher group, Allstate and Aetna Insurance, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., and the Georgia Sheriff's Association, according to the Martindale-Hubbell law directory.

He and House Majority Whip Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus, were two of the lawyers Mr. Barnes had to lobby for the administration's bill strengthening Georgia's open meetings and open records laws, officials said.

Local government associations raised concerns about the measure, and their law firms represent cities, hospital authorities and airport authorities.

The House member working hardest to weaken the legislation was Rep. Glenn Richardson, R-Dallas, whose law firm, according to the directory, represents the Paulding County Board of Commissioners and Paulding County Board of Education.

Mark Middleton, a State Bar of Georgia lobbyist, explained that attorneys can lose thousands of dollars in income serving in the General Assembly because they must spend at least three months away from their practices.

"It inhibits lawyers that don't have clients with political interests from serving," he said.

That holds true for many lawmakers.

"If you're going to have a true citizen legislature, these people have to be able to run their businesses," Mr. Williams said. "The alternative is a full-time legislature."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.