Ethics lax un­der Gold Dome

The Covington News - - Opinion - Bar­bara Mor­gan is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent with a back­ground in news­pa­per jour­nal­ism, state govern­ment and pol­i­tics.

was be­ing ed­u­cated about high speed rail, when high speed rail in Ge­or­gia seems a fig­ment of some­one’s imag­i­na­tion, con­sid­er­ing the state’s lethar­gic em­brace of the con­cept un­der Sonny Per­due and the on­go­ing bud­get cri­sis.

In what world was Ral­ston’s de­ci­sion OK? Not in yours or mine, for sure.

Ac­cept­ing a gift like that is pro­hib­ited for state em­ploy­ees, even Congress, but un­der the ethics laws en­acted by the Ge­or­gia leg­is­la­ture last year, it was per­fectly OK be­cause it had to be re­ported to the state ethics of­fice by the con­sult­ing firm within two weeks of the ex­pen­di­ture.

Spend­ing the money, then re­port­ing it makes it per­fectly le­gal and OK, ap­par­ently.

House Ethics Com­mit­tee Chair Joe Wilkin­son, a friend from way back, de­fends the law, say­ing that full and im­me­di­ate pub­lic dis­clo­sure pro­vides in­for­ma­tion with which “our con­stituents can de­cide if it’s ap­pro­pri­ate.”

So it would seem that Speaker Ral­ston has only to keep his district con­stituents happy, and you just know he’ll be de­liv­er­ing nicely for his North Ge­or­gia district as long as he’s speaker.

Joe goes on to de­cry calls for a cap on gifts from lob­by­ists, say­ing “it sounds good but just doesn’t work.

To ex­plain, he of­fered the ex­am­ple of a sports ticket that might be of­fered to a leg­is­la­tor, but, wait, there’s a $25 limit on lob­by­ist gifts. “Lob­by­ists can di­vide up the cost to get past the cap,” he said. And caps can lead to un­der­ground lob­by­ing or non-re­port­ing, he added.

To Joe’s credit, he’s lead­ing the charge for more fund­ing for the agency for­merly called the State Ethics Com­mis­sion, but now the Ge­or­gia Govern­ment Trans­parency and Cam­paign Fi­nance Com­mis­sion.

He’d like to see qual­i­fy­ing fees raised to fund the in­crease, fees that could then be re­im­bursed to the can­di­date from his or her cam­paign fund.

The agency head, Stacey Kal­ber­man, told a House sub­com­mit­tee Wed­nes­day the of­fice’s bud­get has been cut 42 per­cent since 2008, but re­quired fil­ings in that pe­riod in­creased from some 7,800 a year to as many as 68,000 this year.

The huge bump in fil­ings is due to the new law that says all elected city and county posts and board of ed­u­ca­tion mem­bers must now file elec­tron­i­cally per­sonal fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure state­ments with the state by June 30 ev­ery year, in­stead of fil­ing lo­cally.

That means you’ll be able to go to www.ethics. ga.gov and check fi­nan­cial state­ments sub­mit­ted by our county com­mis­sion­ers and chair, city coun­cil mem­bers, lo­cal may­ors and county board of ed­u­ca­tion mem­bers “with the click of a mouse,” as Joe puts it.

Those state­ments will in­clude hon­o­rar­i­ums re­ceived while on of­fi­cial busi­ness, all fidu­ciary po­si­tions held, busi­ness or in­vest­ment po­si­tions that are more than five per­cent of the en­tity’s to­tal in­ter­ests or worth more than $5,000 at fair mar­ket value; also, own­er­ship in­ter­est by the of­fice­holder in real es­tate, as well as that of a spouse or chil­dren, if known; and his or her oc­cu­pa­tion and em­ployer. And there’s more, ac­cord­ing to the law’s par­tic­u­lars as pro­vided from Ge­or­gia code by Speaker Ral­ston’s press of­fi­cer, Mar­shall Guest.

Let’s not for­get what’s go­ing on in the State Se­nate. Over there, we’ve got the chair­man of the Se­nate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee, Sen. Jack Mur­phy of Cum­ming, un­der fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion for malfea­sance and vi­o­la­tions of bank­ing codes at failed In­tegrity Bank of Al­pharetta where Mur­phy was a board mem­ber. Mur­phy is de­clin­ing to step down from his new post, while the “Com­mit­tee of 8” that put him there con­tin­ues to ex­press con­fi­dence in him. And in what world is that all right? Think “Alice in Won­der­land.” It’s sim­ply sur­real.

I con­tacted our State Rep. Doug Holt and State Sen. Rick Jef­fares for their thoughts on these mat­ters. Both, wisely for them and prob­a­bly for Newton County, de­clined to com­ment.

Bar­bara Mor­gan Colum­nist

The mad­den­ing go­ing­son in Congress are of­ten blamed on “In­side the Belt­way” think­ing, mean­ing peo­ple who live and work in­side the road that en­cir­cles Washington are out of touch with the rest of Amer­ica.

They live and breathe in a world they’ve cre­ated for them­selves. Their days and nights are fu­eled by spe­cial in­ter­est cash.

Fawn­ing staffers, royal treat­ment and lux­u­ri­ous ben­e­fits give them a heady sense that they’re un­touch­able, all pow­er­ful and fly­ing high above reg­u­lar folks.

What we see at the State Capi­tol this year is eerily sim­i­lar to D.C.’s In­side the Belt­way think­ing.

Let’s call it “Un­der the Gold Dome Fever.” A few peo­ple in the leg­is­la­ture think they op­er­ate un­der a dif­fer­ent set of rules than those out here in the real world.Well, they do, sort of.

Take House Speaker David Ral­ston’s Thanks­giv­ing ex­cur­sion to Europe with fam­ily plus a staffer and spouse in tow. A Washington, D.C., trans­porta­tion con­sult­ing firm spent $17,000 on the jaunt, “the most ex­pen­sive sin­gle ex­pen­di­ture re­ported by a lob­by­ist since at least 2005,” per the AJC.

Os­ten­si­bly, the Speaker

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