Originally created 01/31/05

State ethics reform lives again



ATLANTA - When it comes to walking the straight and narrow path, Georgia politicians have a lot of room to meander, according to advocates pushing for tougher ethics laws this year.

Bills on the topic have failed to pass during previous sessions because of disagreements between Republicans and Democrats on how far the ethics rules should extend. But with the GOP in control of both chambers and a bill backed once again by Gov. Sonny Perdue, changes are expected to fare better this time.

This month, Mr. Perdue's floor leaders in the House submitted his "Honesty in Government Act," which addresses lobbying practices, nepotism and fines for conflict-of-interest infractions.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said he would like to see the proposals extend to even tougher rules on disclosure and campaign finance.

"I think it should include not just elected officials but a lot of bureaucracy," he said. "A lot of them make decisions on purchasing anyway, so a lot of the lobbying goes beyond just the part-time elected official."

Democratic legislators submitted their own ethics bills in the House this month that address providing protection to whistle-blowers who report questionable activity, lowering campaign contribution limits and reducing the amount of money lawmakers can hand over from their war chests to other candidates or political parties.

"Nobody expected us to ultimately pass ethics reform with the Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other," said Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "Now, we do."

When the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group in Washington, conducted a national survey of states' ethics laws several years ago, it ranked Georgia 33rd in the nation.

"We haven't improved since then, and other states have put some things in their ethics laws," said Bill Bozarth, the executive director for Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group.

One weak area he sees in the current laws is the lack of enforcement ability for the State Ethics Commission, which now fields mostly complaints about how politicians fill out their financial disclosure forms.

In areas such as conflict of interest in which elected officials gain a side benefit from their position, violations that fall short of a criminal indictment are often overlooked, Mr. Bozarth said.

"We have no way to handle the gray area between pristine area and criminal behavior," he said. "There's a wide gap there."

The Republican- and Perdue-backed bill, which has been assigned to the House Ethics Committee, gives the Ethics Commission the authority over all conflict-of-interest charges and raises the maximum penalty amount for each incident from $1,000 to $10,000.

The proposals also address changes in lobbying rules at the Capitol.

The bill would bar state employees and legislators from becoming lobbyists until a year after they leave office. Lobbyists would also have to report how much they make in fees and who pays them.

And public officials would not be allowed to take gifts worth more than $50 from people seeking business with the state.

With a history of high-dollar dinners, freebies and junket trips, legislators would have to change the way they interact with corporate lobbyists, observers said.

"For us, it levels the playing field," said Dawn Randolph, a lobbyist with nonprofit groups including AARP Georgia and the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Neill Herring, an environmental lobbyist, said he is concerned that the existing law contains a massive loophole defining who qualifies as a lobbyist.

Lobbyists are now required to register with the state and report their expenses, but who fits the description is a matter of debate.

"A lobbyist is a person who opposes or promotes the passage of legislation, but no description of how that might be achieved is included," Mr. Herring said, adding that people are now advising on legislation and testifying before committees without registering. "By putting it in the statute, it (would be) impossible for someone to say, 'Well, I just wrote the bill. I wasn't lobbying.'"

Whether those amendments or some of the Democrats' proposals are added to the Republicans' bill will be seen once it starts moving through the House.

"If the governor isn't supporting it, it's got a much harder chance," Mr. Bozarth said. "We're hoping that all of that comes together, so it really brings us up on how states are evaluated."

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