Originally created 02/14/01

Critics say Cheeks bills could benefit sponsor



ATLANTA - A pair of transportation bills backed by an Augusta lawmaker are drawing heat from opponents, including some watchdog groups that question whether he could personally benefit if at least one becomes law.

Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, has sponsored a bill that would ease restrictions on billboards along state highways and co-sponsored one that would let business owners sue the government for revenue lost because of nearby roadwork.

Mr. Cheeks, who is vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and his family own several pieces of property they lease to billboard companies. Roadwork near property in his wife's name drew conflict-of-interest accusations last year.

Groups that keep an eye on ethics in government say the billboard bill gives at least the appearance of being improper.

"On the face of it, this seems like a case where someone has materially benefited from something they're proposing to the legislature," said Peter Eisner, the director of Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based government watchdog group.

"This is a public trust, and legislators should ask themselves the question ... whether they're avoiding even the appearance of conflict of interest."

Mr. Cheeks said he sees no conflict and that he wouldn't benefit financially if the bill becomes law.

"This bill will not put one more or one less penny in my family's pocket, much less mine," he said.

The outdoor advertising bill would allow billboards closer to on-ramps and quicken the number of times "multiple message" signs could flash new ads - from once every 10 seconds to once every six seconds.

Mr. Cheeks said he removed another line in the bill, which would have cut the required distance between the flashing signs nearly in half, after opposition in a committee meeting last week.

Sen. Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said his problem with the bill is simple.

"It looks like it could allow more billboards, and I oppose that," said Mr. Johnson, who said more of the signs, particularly ones that change messages rapidly, could be distracting to drivers.

The bill met sharp opposition from lawmakers in last week's committee meeting, particularly from some in metro Atlanta counties who say they fear billboards have become too common.

Mr. Johnson, who sits on the transportation committee, would not speculate on what motivation Mr. Cheeks might have had for introducing the bills.

"I don't want to assume the worst here," Mr. Johnson said. "If you look close enough, there are all sorts of conflicts all over the place."

Mr. Cheeks, who said his family leases between five and eight pieces of land to outdoor advertisers, said legislators routinely vote on laws that affect their own professions.

"What are lawyers going to do?" said Mr. Cheeks, who used to own billboards himself. "What are the bankers going to do? What are the schoolteachers going to do?

"There would be nobody in the General Assembly that could vote if you claim that because I own a piece of property that a billboard company leases from me that it's a conflict."

But Mr. Eisner, whose group has studied lawmakers' personal interests in all 50 states, said voting on a bill and sponsoring one are two different stories.

"While it's true that teachers may vote on teachers' bills and lawyers may vote on lawyers' bills, it's a different thing to sit on a committee that's so closely involved not just with voting but with writing legislation," Mr. Eisner said.

A study by the center revealed that, in 1998, 19 percent of legislators in the Georgia General Assembly sat on committees that regulated their own professions or business interests.

"There's a flip side to that," Mr. Eisner said. "It also means that 81 percent of legislators don't; not everyone is regulating their own areas."

Mr. Johnson said the bill giving business owners the right to sue over roadwork could prove costly to the state.

"I don't think it comes down to a simple property rights issue," he said. "It's an issue of if we should provide compensation to businesses at a potentially very high cost to taxpayers."

The bill is reminiscent of a situation last year involving property owned by Mr. Cheeks' wife on Wheeler Road in Augusta.

While the state Department of Transportation was condemning pieces of neighboring properties for a road project, Mr. Cheeks negotiated for a left-turn median next to his wife's property instead.

Neighbors accused the senator of misusing his authority to improve his wife's property, a claim Mr. Cheeks denied.

He said the current bill has no connection with that situation and that complaints about both bills are more about politics than ethics and roadway concerns.

"Everybody's making such a big deal over nothing," Mr. Cheeks said.

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.