Originally created 04/09/00

Long agenda awaits Ethics Commission



ATLANTA -- The halls of the Georgia Capitol are quiet these days, lawmakers having gone home to their regular jobs and, later this year, to campaign for re-election.

It's a far different scene, however, west of the capital off Interstate 20 in Douglasville, where the state Ethics Commission is scrambling to handle a huge backlog of complaints spawned by the legislative session that ended late last month.

The commission meets Friday inside the Douglas County Courthouse facing about 60 ethics complaints, mostly against legislators and most filed in the past two months. Commissioners tend to get more complaints during election years, but the agency never has been hit with so many this early in the campaign season, said Teddy Lee, the commission's executive director.

"It creates a whole new set of circumstances from what we historically have had to deal with," he said.

Ethics reform was a major issue during the 2000 session of the General Assembly, and, if Republicans have their way, they will keep that high profile on the campaign trail this fall.

The session started with Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor presiding over an ethics seminar in the Senate and the House adopting a bipartisan code of ethics.

But later, several Republican-backed ethics measures that passed the Senate died in the House without reaching the floor. Some GOP senators and public-interest groups also complained that the major reform bill that did pass -- requiring electronic filing of campaign-disclosure reports -- also doubles campaign-contribution limits candidates potentially are allowed to raise.

Republicans took the initiative on ethics reform this year, pushing a bill that would have gone beyond the current prohibition against lawmakers accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session to also prevent them from soliciting donations. They would not have been able to receive pledges to donate anything of value like meals, football tickets or even a cup of coffee during the session.

The GOP package also would have forbidden the use of state employees, buildings, cars or planes for raising campaign money; prohibited paid lobbyists from serving on state boards, authorities or commissions; and forbidden former lawmakers from lobbying their former colleagues within one year of leaving office.

The Republicans' minority status in the General Assembly makes them natural advocates of reform, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

"When you're on the outside looking in, it's a lot easier to be a reformer," he said. "If you're the governing party, it makes it harder to be critical because you're in a position to take care of the problem."

Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said Republican candidates will lay the blame for the failure of the reform package squarely on the shoulders of Democrats.

"They clearly did not want to change the status quo," he said. "They clearly are addicted to special interests and the money they can provide."

But Mr. Taylor said the ethics bills died because Republicans didn't do enough to broaden their support.

"If you're just working with a small group of senators or representatives, you can push a bill through committee and get it out on the floor," the lieutenant governor said.

"But if you don't have consensus, then it just becomes a Christmas tree for various ideas. You might pass a real tough ethics bill on the floor of one body and the other body is going to say, `Where did this come from?"'

Mr. Taylor himself was able to push through a constitutional amendment providing for the removal of any lawmaker convicted of a felony, a proposal based on last year's conviction of former Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, D-Savannah, of mail fraud. It was a bill he had been pushing for months.

But he, too, was disappointed that the House failed to take up a Senate bill levying registration fees on lobbyists. The proceeds would have gone to help the Ethics Commission cope with its mounting workload.

Lawmakers, however, did add about $182,000 to the commission's 2001 budget to beef up staffing. Mr. Lee plans to use the money to step up efforts to educate city clerks and county elections supervisors on ethics laws, training which is particularly important in light of the new campaign-disclosure requirements.

"Changing the law makes it absolutely essential to get out the word on how to ensure compliance," he said. "When they don't understand, they don't do it right."

But the first order of business is dealing with the slew of complaints now before the commission. Many relate to a single issue, a warning from the commission that it is illegal for candidates for state office to take money supporters have given them, then turn around and contribute it to political-action committees.

Rome bookstore owner George Anderson, who frequently has filed complaints against officeholders, said 16 Republican senators are guilty of the practice.

"There are lawmakers who are also lawbreakers," he said. "These guys ought to be following the law."

Republicans have responded by filing similar complaints against Democratic legislators. State GOP Chairman Chuck Clay said Republicans were unaware of the provision until informed by the commission and are working out arrangements for the PACs to refund as many of the contributions as they can.

"I think that will be resolved in a way that will not tar people," he said.

Besides the complaints filed during the session, the commission also has some cases pending from last year, including complaints by Democrats that Republican state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko accepted illegal contributions and filed faulty campaign-disclosure reports.

ReachDave Williams at (404) 589-8424.

Ethics cases

Here are some of the elected officials who are subjects of complaints filed with the state Ethics Commission:

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville

Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta

Rep. Thomas Buck, D-Columbus

Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers

Sen. Nathan Dean, D-Rockmart

Sen. Mike Egan, R-Atlanta

House Minority Whip Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs

Rep. Mike Evans, R-Cumming

Sen. Tim Golden, D-Valdosta

Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus

Sen. Sonny Huggins, D-LaFayette

House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, R-Atlanta

Sen. Carol Jackson, D-Cleveland

Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah

Sen. Robert Lamutt, R-Marietta

Sen. Clay Land, R-Columbus

Sen. Daniel Lee, D-LaGrange

Sen. Eddie Madden, D-Elberton

Sen. Richard Marable, D-Rome

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, Republican

Sen. Sonny Perdue, R-Bonaire

Sen. Rick Price, R-Fayetteville

Sen. Thomas Price, R-Roswell

Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta

Sen. Faye Smith, D-Milledgeville

Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Forest Park

Sen. Van Streat, D-Nicholls

Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, Democrat

Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta

Sources: Georgia Republican Party, George Anderson