Brown says AG behavior ‘unethical,’ partisan

mlee@macon.comMarch 23, 2011 

ATLANTA -- State Attorney General Sam Olens is acting inconsistently by offering feedback on legislation to his fellow Republicans, but denying something similar to Democrat Sen. Robert Brown, the senator contends.

Olens “is providing advice and consent in a partisan and unjust manner,” Brown said. “It’s an unethical abuse of the process, and taxpayers deserve better.”

The two cases have to do with Sunday sales of alcohol on one hand and campaign contributions from regulated utilities on the other.

Right now under Georgia law, regulated utilities -- such as Georgia Power or gas companies -- cannot create political action committees and channel campaign contributions to political candidates.

A Republican bill that’s already passed the Senate repeals that rule. Senate Bill 160 backers argue that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, regulated utilities have the right to make campaign donations.

However, opponents, such as the government transparency lobby Common Cause, maintain that the Citizens United case applies only to political action committee spending on independent campaign ads, not donations to individual candidates.

Brown, D-Macon, put the question to Olens: What’s the attorney general’s opinion on the Georgia law, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation in Citizens United?

In his March 18 letter back to Brown, Olens wrote that following the precedent of previous AGs, it would be inappropriate for him to opine on the constitutionality of an act of the General Assembly -- a current law. Also, Olens wrote that due to the “separation of powers” doctrine, it would be inappropriate for him to comment on active legislation in the General Assembly.

However, Olens did something that Democrats find quite similar for a pair of Republican state legislators, Sen. Barry Loudermilk of Cassville and Rep. Roger Williams of Dalton.

Olens answered a query from them on Sunday alcohol sales in a March 2 letter. Olens wrote “it is the general policy of this office not to opine on pending legislation, particularly in light of the fact that this office is charged with defending the constitutionality of legislative enactments.” However, Olens added, “we have conducted some initial research regarding the issues raised in your correspondence which is outlined herein.”

That’s followed by four pages of background in the form of case citations and commentary pertaining to proposals in Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 69, the Sunday sales bills.

Brown declared, “Democrats are being shut out of the process. ... Our attorney general has abdicated his duty to fairly seek justice in a thinly veiled effort to protect big money interests. Sunday liquor sales rate higher than protecting the interests of utility rate payers.”

That reflects a worry that utility customers will end up paying indirectly for any contributions, though the bill specifies that utilities would be required to make donations out of their profits, not raise monthly bills and effectively charge the donations back to their customers.

The Attorney General’s Office denies inconsistency. Neither letter is an official opinion, emphasized Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the office.

The key, Kane said via e-mail, is that the Republicans asked for input on pending legislation, but got only a backgrounder on alcohol law, while Brown asked about the constitutionality of existing legislation. And Olens’ letter on Sunday sales is “more of an explication of general and local law related to alcohol sales. It takes no policy position on any specific proposed legislation, but notes hypothetically that legislation could legally be enacted that would allow local governments to authorize certain sales.”

She continued, “As stated in the (Brown) letter, this office has a duty to defend laws enacted by the General Assembly, and it would be generally inappropriate for us to opine on the constitutionality of such laws. This is also the long-standing practice in this office. We have on many occasions declined to issue opinions to legislators making similar requests.”

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