Originally created 02/03/03

Proposed ethics rules too tough



DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. - Donnie Henriques had little idea when friends asked the civic volunteer and business manager to run for the Woodstock City Council that he would be grilled for an hour by a government prosecutor about a $500 campaign contribution he forgot to report.

Mr. Henriques' experience Friday before the State Ethics Commission is common for state and local politicians facing complaints filed by political opponents and others over mostly technical violations.

The volume and magnitude of complaints could increase dramatically with the passage of stricter ethics rules proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue and others.

Some people believe tougher ethics rules are needed for politicians, but others say they're unrealistic and wouldn't be followed by any other segment of society.

Overly restrictive rules, they argue, could discourage well-meaning people from running for office even though they might have much to contribute to society. Many politicians enter public service for altruistic purposes.

"That's why I'm here today; my neighbors convinced me that I was the best one to run," Mr. Henriques said. "I had some commitments and some things I wanted to get done."

Officeholders often apply the ethical rules they operated by in their professional and volunteer activities with the assumption that doing the right thing in one endeavor is proper in another. Many are surprised to learn that the rules for candidates and elected officials are more stringent and require frequent, detailed reports.

"I was never handed a copy of any code book until Mr. Lee visited my office in June of last year," Mr. Henriques said, referring to Theodore Lee, the executive secretary of the Ethics Commission.

Mr. Perdue is recommending that the General Assembly pass rules that require greater disclosure of personal finances, limits what jobs they can take after public service and reduces their ability to get campaign contributions. Mr. Perdue's floor leader has already introduced part of the legislation.

"Many times I've stated that trust must be earned, that trust is a two-way street. I want all Georgians to trust in their government," the governor said.

Several recent surveys have shown that the public is eager for ethics reform. Many of America's largest companies follow much of what Mr. Perdue is proposing - or they're beginning to in the wake of scandals such as those at Enron, Arthur Andersen and Global Crossing, according to Notre Dame professor Patrick E. Murphy, the director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide.

Companies are training their executives in ethics. They prohibit top managers from earning speaking fees, from taking or giving gifts before purchasing decisions are made, and they foster an atmosphere of fair play.

"A lot of businesses spend a lot of money on ethics training and compliance, and they think the money is well spent," he said.

Yet, even companies with sterling ethics would balk at some of what is being asked of politicians, including disclosure of their finances, Mr. Murphy said.

The bottom line is that business executives and politicians face different expectations from the public. One group is answerable to shareholders and customers; the other is accountable to voters.

Part of the reason is that the resources politicians control belong to everybody, said Astrid Vicas, an associate professor of philosophy at St. Leo University in Tampa, Fla.

"The resources they use are ultimately paid for by taxpayers' money," she said. "Not so in the case of business. Of course, business people should be held accountable for what they do, but for other reasons."

ETHICS PROPOSALS

The following are the major points on the ethics legislation that Gov. Sonny Perdue has said he will introduce:

  • Expand the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission
  • Require state vendors to register their sales representatives as lobbyists and disclose their finances
  • Require more financial details of elected officials and candidates
  • Prohibit officeholders from becoming lobbyists for a year after they leave office
  • Prohibit officeholders from seeking favors for family members
  • Outlaw solicitation of campaign contributions while the General Assembly is in session - usually four months each year
  • Forbid officials from accepting payment for speeches
  • Source: Governor's Office

    Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 681-1701 or waltermns@mindspring.com.