By Walter Jones –
ATLANTA – A national advocacy group has awarded Georgia a D- for laws dealing with campaign finance, government ethics and openness in an assessment released today.
No state made higher than a C on the report card produced by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Georgia’s numerical grade, 68.2, puts it squarely in the middle of states at 24th. That compares to its ranking at 50th, the worst in the country, in the last report card issued in 2012.
Reaction to the new results is mixed.
Some officials and experts said the grade was too low.
“I don’t think that a D- is a fair assessment,” said Stefan Ritter, executive secretary of the Georgia Government Transparency Commission and Campaign Finance Commission. “I don’t know what that means if you’re not grading on a curve.”
David Hudson, an Augusta attorney who represents the Georgia Press Association, sees the state’s open-meetings and records laws in action and helps media outlets push government officials to abide by them.
“There are instances where school boards, sheriffs’ offices, and hospital authorities will try to circumvent the laws by claiming exceptions or attempting to apply the laws to allow closure rather than openness, and there has to be constant vigilance to resist those efforts,” he said. “But by and large, and on a day-to-day basis, I would rank Georgia’s open government laws and the enforcement of those laws a B+ or an A-.”
But William Perry, director of a newly launched advocacy Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said the new grade is too high.
“With their 2015 report, CPI and GI are delivering a devastating blow to ethics reform activists in Georgia because they are giving our legislators, governor and attorney general the cover they need to do absolutely nothing to bring about the change we need to have credible state and local governments when it comes to high ethical standards and enforcement,” he said. “Meaningful ethics reform has not happened in our state in decades, and this 2015 State Integrity Investigation will be the death knell to ethics reform for many more years to come.”
The sponsors hired veteran journalists in each state to address 245 questions in 13 categories, including access to government meetings and documents, pension investing, civil service, internal auditing and lobbying disclosure. The evaluators interviewed advocates, state officials and other reporters as part of their research.
For many questions, no state received 100 percent.
Because the journalists doing the evaluations only examined one state each, some critics say that an uneven comparison resulted.
Rep. Joe Wilkinson, chairman of the House Ethics Committee for the last 11 years, said a review of the previous report card found that Georgia was graded lower than other states that had substantially identical laws.
“The report in 2012, I think, was fraudulent,” said Wilkinson, R-Atlanta.
The 2012 report came in the middle of a legislative election that made ethics an issue. Both political parties polled their voters during the summer primary and found overwhelming support for limits on lobbyists’ gifts to public officials. The following year, the General Assembly enacted a $75 cap. It also required candidates and lobbyists to file reports more frequently while boosting fines if they don’t.
Most observers say the changes have worked so far. Overall lobbyist giving has declined.
“What is having an impact on the behavior of elected officials and registered lobbyists is the public glare on lobbyists’ expenditures on elected officials,” said Jet Toney, a veteran lobbyist who chairs the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association. “More elected officials are choosing to pay their own way during interaction with lobbyists.”
Also in 2012, Attorney General Sam Olens, working with media organizations, led the General Assembly to revise the laws on access to meetings and documents, including raising the fines for violations. While advocates generally applaud the changes, they complain that often it takes a lawsuit to get compliance because Olens’ office does little to enforce it.
“While Georgia’s laws on their face seem adequate, we have struggled over the years in enforcing them,” said Hollie Manheimer, an attorney and executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “Over the last few decades, Georgia has explored a variety of new enforcement mechanisms — some effective, some not. Unfortunately, litigation — albeit uneconomical and inefficient — remains one of the strongest enforcement mechanisms.”
One of the biggest developments since 2012 has been the changes at the Campaign Finance Commission, the five-member panel that oversees the reporting of candidate and lobbyist finances. It has suffered staff turnover, including a former executive secretary who won a $700,000 court award for wrongful dismissal and her successor who was fired for withholding evidence in the case. A state audit characterized the agency as dysfunctional.
Since then, the legislature has doubled the agency’s budget and added staff. Its new head, Ritter, is an 18-year veteran of the attorney general’s office who has prosecuted public officials.
He promises more vigorous enforcement without waiting for someone else to file a complaint, as has been the practice in the past.
“I’m not interested in a lot of time being spent on the public’s dime trying to prosecute cases that are very minor – that are mistakes, accounting errors or just someone’s misunderstanding of the law,” he said. “I am interested in going after cases where a lot of money is involved or it is a significant public official.”
There are a lot of those minor cases, such as dozens of local officials who either failed to file their reports or filed them late. He estimates the state is owed $3 million in fines that he intends to pursue.
He is upgrading agency computers to automatically raise red flags, not just for missing reports, but also for missing details. For instance, he wants them to systematically compare individual campaign donations by political-action committees with the reports of candidates receiving them to see if both report the same transaction.
So far, Ritter has gotten good reviews.
“He has already made a very positive impact. We’re very fortunate to have someone come from the AG’s office,” said Wilkinson, the House Ethics chairman.
Toney, of the Professional Lobbyists Association agrees.
“While many areas remain where more guidance is needed to define lobbyist activities, expenditures and reporting, the current ethics commission staff clearly provides more guidance than in any period of the last five years,” he said.
What’s needed now, according to Perry of the Georgia Ethics Watchdogs is a guaranteed source of funding for the commission rather than depending on legislative appropriations.
“It’s a start, and I believe the commission is now under the right leadership. But, you only need to look at the executive secretary’s fiscal year end report to see the problems. In its true fashion, the legislature appropriated money for staff, but not the resources or even office space for the new staff to be hired and come to work.”
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