Originally created 08/06/02

Augusta's LBJ

The just released third volume of Robert Caro's sweeping biography of the nation's 36th president covers Lyndon Baines Johnson's years in the U.S. Senate - most of them as majority leader.

Caro recounts, in LBJ - Master of the Senate (1950-60) that Johnson pushed civil rights and New Deal aid for poor people and persecuted minorities because, in today's modern lexicon, "he felt their pain."

And just as LBJ saw nothing wrong in using government power to help the downtrodden, he also saw no wrong in exploiting his position as a powerful senator (and later as president) to become extraordinarily wealthy. Johnson, who spent his whole career as an elected federal official, entered Congress in the 1930s dirt poor and left the presidency in 1969 a multimillionaire.

One wonders if LBJ isn't the role model for Georgia's Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker. Like LBJ, the Augusta Democrat is using government service to make himself rich. Also like LBJ, he has an ethical blind spot.

Recall Walker's speech to small business owners earlier this year when he bragged about amassing great wealth in the Senate - and this was after the state Ethics Commission fined him $8,500 for failing to disclose his business ties to two public hospitals that depend on the legislature for funding.

Under fire all across the state and calls for an audit reaching fever pitch, Walker proclaimed to the business owners that he does not apologize for his riches.

"I learned the game," he boasted, "and I play it better than those who created it." LBJ would be proud. And just as LBJ did good things for his constituencies, Walker has done some fine things for his, including the medical community and the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp.

Walker is bursting with pride that last week's months'-long audit gave him a clean legal bill of health, even though he and organizations he's affiliated with collected more than $125,000 from non-profit agencies funded by large state grants he helped get.

Yes, almost unique among states, Georgia law tolerates that kind of conflict of interest. But what's legal is not always ethical. That's what Walker doesn't understand.

Most Peach State politicians divorce their businesses from legislative activities in which they have a direct hand, because it's morally repugnant not to. Walker doesn't buy into that. Let us hope he doesn't see the audit as a green light to further test ethical limits.

Quite to the contrary, a red light is in order. Georgia should pass a tough ethics law - one that would make it unlawful for legislators to siphon taxpayer money with total disregard for blatant conflicts of interest.

We urge Sen. Walker to show good faith and sound leadership by leading the charge for stronger ethics. "Playing the game" is no defense for unethical behavior, no matter what the rationalization. A number of CEOs and accountants around the country who are also adept at "playing the game" have led this nation to a new low when it comes to ethics. We find it difficult to believe Sen. Walker would applaud their game-playing skills.


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