Report: Georgia among riskiest for government corruption

mlee@macon.comMarch 20, 2012 

ATLANTA -- Georgia’s laws, regulations and budget leave the state more open to official corruption than most other states, a new report contends.

Georgia scored a 49 out of 100 on a broad survey of its government ethics, conflict of interest and internal oversight laws, as graded by the State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. The highest score on 330-question test went to New Jersey, which got an 87.

“I think it raises very troubling questions about changes we need to make,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, a member of the state Senate Ethics Committee and vocal proponent of ethics reform.

Georgia got an “F” on nine of 14 subjects on the report card, including lobbyist disclosure, public access to information, civil service and pension fund management, political financing and legislative accountability.

One problem across several categories is that enforcement is underfunded, according to the report.

Georgia’s ethics agency must collect various financial or campaign reports for all public office candidates, political committees and lobbyists.

The Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission must also keep track of who is not filing and must assess fees. The panel has to hear and consider public questions on gray areas of ethics laws.

The commission’s budget fell from $1.9 million in fiscal year 2008 to $1.1 million for the fiscal year ending in 2012.

In the same time, the state’s total budget fell from $20.5 billion to $18.6 billion.

“Generally, all our agencies are underfunded, nor (do they) have adequate personnel to do the job they need to do,” said state Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. He said the report is a “concern,” but he also said there’s disagreement about what constitutes good change.

For example, Georgia does not have some states’ dollar limits on lobbyist gifts to legislators, he pointed out, but Georgia does require reporting the gift. If there were caps, perhaps spending and gifting would go “underground,” he said, adding that “now everything is open and aboveboard.”

Yet some people do skirt lobbying laws.

For an easy example, independent lobbyists who have several clients are supposed to disclose them all. But even a quick look through disclosures shows lobbyists who list only the name of their consulting company and who don’t itemize their clients.

As for sunshine laws, if someone in Georgia thinks a government is illegally keeping a document or a meeting from the public eye, their options are a lawsuit or a complaint to the state Attorney General’s Office.

“We receive about 400 complaints a year,” said AG spokeswoman Lauren Kane. If they find an actual problem, the AG’s office tries to work it out with the public official via mediation and a consent order. “A citizen could go to court” instead of her office, said Kane, “but we understand that’s expensive.”

New Jersey has an Open Records Council to hear inquiries and complaints about open records violations. Both states have dozens of exemptions in open records laws. In Georgia, the Legislature and the judiciary can keep documents to themselves.

In Georgia, top civil servants can leave their state job and immediately work anywhere, including for lobbying firms. Just in December 2011, the head of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Allen Barnes, left the state. A month later he showed up as president and CEO of Joe Tanner and Associates, a lobbying firm.

In New Jersey, retired civil servants are barred from trying to lobby or contract with the state in the area they worked on as a public official.

Yet, the best laws are still only part of government ethics, said Natalie O’Donnell Wood, a senior policy specialist for the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures. They collect data but do not do subjective commentary.

“A state could have a lot of laws, but whether they work is something different,” she said. The rest depends on the elected official choosing to do the right thing.

“When you’re elected to office, you’re elected to public trust,” she said.

Georgia got its highest grade, an 87, on auditing. The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts was rated as fairly well-funded, independent, and open with its reports.

Some legislators suggested the report was unfair. McKoon said previous studies suggested Georgia was much, much closer to the top of ethics rankings, so some people thought there was no need for a change.

Indeed, a 2009 report from CPI ranked Georgia seventh, but on a much narrower, 43-question survey of disclosure laws.

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