Originally created 12/13/04

Ga. lawmakers receive lessons in ethics



ATHENS, Ga. - As many Georgians sat in church pews Sunday morning, the state's newest lawmakers heard about the temptations of kickbacks and the sin of conflicting interest.

Freshman legislators meeting in Athens started an introduction to state government with a session about ethics in the Legislature.

The discussion was part of a three-day program held every other year by the General Assembly and the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

The gathering is intended to expose new members to the legislative process and policy discussions with returning lawmakers before the session starts Jan. 10.

Sen.-elect Charles Walker, D-Augusta, was absent from the pool of about 50 legislators attending Sunday's ethics lecture.

Though he once served as Senate majority leader, his return to the Capitol after a two-year absence technically places him in the freshman group.

Mr. Walker has been indicted on 142 felony counts, including conspiracy, mail fraud and filing false tax returns. Republican Linda Schrenko, the former state schools superintendent, has been indicted on charges that she stole $614,000 in education money. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Ted Lee, the executive director of the State Ethics Commission, described ethical questions and temptations as an "occupational hazard" for lawmakers.

"Everybody has a right to appeal to your reason, but you need to be very careful about letting people appeal to your appetites," Mr. Lee said. "You cannot protect your objectivity if you do not keep the people that you have to deal with at the Legislature at arm's length."

Some of the rules Mr. Lee and Deputy Attorney General Dennis Dunn outlined for the lawmakers included not being able to accept campaign contributions once the session starts or being able to do business with a state agency under most circumstances.

"If you're a public official, if you're a public employee and somebody wants to take you out golfing, somebody wants to take you to dinner, somebody wants to buy you a car ... it is not necessarily just because they like you," Mr. Dunn said.

The coming legislative session is expected to bring another round of debate over the state's ethics laws. Changes backed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, such as disclosure about lobbyists' pay and a waiting period for former lawmakers working as lobbyists, have stalled during recent sessions.

Common sense is usually the best barometer when questions arise, officials advised the group.

"There should be, especially since you haven't been sworn in yet, that little voice inside of you, and you need to listen to that voice," said Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, who served as vice chairman of the Senate's ethics committee. "That's probably your momma talking to you."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 589-8424 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.