Georgia ethics panel struggles with cuts

ATLANTA --- A scandal that drove Georgia's powerful House speaker from office has candidates from both political parties arguing that the state Ethics Commission should be given more power to investigate lawmakers.

But the panel in recent years has been a poor stepchild in state government, stripped of power and the target of repeated budget cuts that have slashed its staff by more than half.

And -- in a particularly embarrassing development -- two top ethics commission staff members are being investigated by the state Inspector General on allegations they did private legal work on state time.

"I think it's fair to say it's not functioning very well right now," said Bill Bozarth, the executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia.

"There are real questions about whether state legislators have punished the commission to try to weaken it."

State legislators this year hacked $550,000 from the commission's budget, bringing it down to $1.2 million. And they stripped the panel of its rule-making authority, which its former executive secretary said effectively hobbles its ability to interpret and enforce state statutes.

Rick Thompson, who left the commission in October to launch a private consulting firm, said the panel has become an ethics panel in name only.

"This really is a disclosure board," Mr. Thompson said, noting that it has a narrow mission overseeing campaign finance reports and lobbyist registrations. "It has almost nothing to do with ethics."

The cuts came after the commission levied its largest fine ever, slapping the Georgia Association of Realtors in 2008 with an $80,000 penalty for failing to report about $500,000 in campaign contributions.

The commission's current chairman said he did not believe the funding cuts have been punitive.

"I think we have what we need," James Gatewood, an Americus lawyer, said.

Still, he allowed that the coming year will be a challenge because campaign finance complaints inevitably spike in election years and 2010 will bring a crowded race for governor, other statewide constitutional offices and legislative seats.

And some want to give the commission more to do. House Democrats have taken the wraps off legislation that would hand the ethics commission jurisdiction over conflict-of-interest complaints filed against legislators.

Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican candidate for governor, supports the move.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, also a Republican, had pushed for such a change in separate ethics reform bills in 2003 and 2005.

Instead, legislators in 2005 created a joint legislative ethics committee that allows lawmakers to effectively chaperone their own conduct. The committee has yet to sanction a single lawmaker, members said.

The limitations of that system became apparent in a scandal that brought down House Speaker Glenn Richardson. In 2007, Georgia Democrats filed an ethics complaint against Mr. Richardson, a Republican, accusing him of an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light. At the time, Mr. Richardson was pushing a $300 million pipeline bill being sought by the utility.

A three-member review panel of the joint legislative ethics committee dismissed the complaint without contacting any of the people involved.

That appeared to be the end of the matter until Susan Richardson, in an interview with Fox 5 Atlanta last month, said the key allegation in the complaint was accurate -- that her former husband had engaged in a "full-out affair" with the lobbyist. She also said she had the e-mails to prove it. Days after the interview aired, Mr. Richardson announced he would step down on Jan. 1.

The five-member panel is composed of political appointees. The governor has three picks, the speaker of the House and the state Senate the other two.