It's heartening to see the Georgia Assembly start off the new year with a package of ethics reforms. A panel of Republicans and Democrats, appointed by House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, developed a 55-page ethics document which House members approved 163-1.
It was prompted by several highly publicized ethics complaints filed against several House members. Last week Rep. Arnold Ragas, D-Stone Mountain, became only the second Georgia House member in history to be reprimanded by colleagues for ethics violations. He admitted to not filing campaign reports on time and not paying a $10,000 fine.
A fresh twist incorporates existing statutory and constitutional provisions governing ethics requirements of House members into a single code. There are, however, some new mandates, including:
Restrictions on private use of Capitol offices and equipment, which have exceptions allowing lawmakers to tend to some private business.
Ban on spending state funds for unapproved reasons.
Ban on false statements on spending of state funds.
Ban on trading favors for campaign contributions.
Ban on retaliating against whistle-blowers who file ethics complaints.
The House also OK'd some new procedures to make the rules more palatable. They include allowing lawmakers to request an advisory opinion on whether some action they are contemplating would constitute a conflict of interest. To encourage inquiries, the names would be kept secret.
Also, initial charges against a lawmaker would be kept secret (like a court's gag order) until a bipartisan panel decides if there's merit.
In wake of last year's convictions of state Sen. Diane Harvey Johnson, D-Savannah, and former state Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III, D-Atlanta, for diverting taxpayers' money to their personal use, the ethics issue is also impacting the Senate.
It's a disgrace that in Georgia convicted lawmakers do not have to resign -- they can serve until their term ends. There is a drive underway, led by the governor and Senate leadership, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would require lawmakers convicted of a felony to immediately give up their seat. This proposal deserves strong public support.