Common Cause Keeps Up the Cause – and Pressure – on Ethics Reform in Georgia

By Matt McWilliams

For as much controversy as it stirs up, the Tea Party does make a good point: Money may have too much influence over politics in Georgia.

It is one of the reasons that gave rise to the Tea Party, which continues to be politically relevant nationally and locally.

AJC Columnists Jay Bookman, left, and Kyle Wingfield, right, join Common Cause GA’s William Perry on People TV for an ethics reform discussion. Click the photo to visit the actual YouTube video of the show.

“One of the reasons, I think, why the Tea Party has latched onto this issue is because the Tea Party, like many other groups, is very attuned to the gap between the citizens and their elected officials,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution conservative columnist Kyle Wingfield said recently on PeopleTV. “And certainly the issue of lobbyist gifts speaks to that gap.”

Wingfield pointed to an AJC report that shows lobbyists showered more than $800,000 in gifts on legislators during the most recent legislative session.

The Tea Party is not alone in calling for reform. The group has found an unlikely ally in Common Cause, an organization that has long called for increasing transparency in government. Together – along  with Georgia Watch and the League of Women Voters – they formed the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform.

The issue has even brought together Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnists Jay Bookman and Kyle Wingfield, whose perspectives more typically clash rather than align.

It’s the alignment on this particular issue that Common Cause wishes to communicate to voters in the coming months, and which People TV broadcast several weeks ago.  These videos are now available on YouTube.  (Watch at the bottom of this article.)

As Common Cause executive director William Perry explains, Georgia’s lax rules on ethics have effectively “institutionalized bribery.”  What Bookman – by way of Lawrence Lessig – calls a “gift economy”.

That’s one of the reasons why a national study by The Center for Public Integrity recently gave Georgia an “F” for ethics and ranked Georgia last among all states on its corruption risk scorecard.

“In Georgia, more than 650 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state in 2007 and 2008, clearly violating state ethics law,” Caitlin Ginley writes in 50 states and no winners in an article accompanying the release of the report. “The last time the state issued a penalty on a vendor was 1999.”

And overall, the report paints a bleak picture regarding the influence of money in state capitals.

Joe Wilkinson

But not everyone is convinced lobbyist gifts buys influence under the Gold Dome. State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, who chairs the ethics committee, has doggedly decried efforts to bring more stringent ethics guidelines to the state.

When asked by the AJC for his reaction to the report, Wilkinson expressed shock and noted his concern about bias by the individual who conducted the state audit on behalf of the Center for Public Integrity.

“To have Georgia’s laws judged by a blogger instead of a regulatory official, as has been done in the past, is of great concern,” he said. “Based on previous discussions with the Center for Public Integrity, we were under the assumption that the 2012 rankings would show Georgia in the top five states.”

That blogger is former AJC editor Jim Walls who now operates a blog called Atlanta Unfiltered.

And Wilkinson is not the only one decrying the report’s findings.

Rick Thompson

Former Georgia ethics officer Rick Thompson takes a swing at the report, too.

“The Center for Public Integrity was irresponsible for accepting outdated sources and not requiring each and every question to be based on current law and regulations,” writes in the Savannah Morning News. “CPI’s failed oversight is shameful and indefensible.”

“CPI advertised on journalist websites and hired reporters to answer the questions,” Wilkinson claims in an AJC Op-Ed. “Sadly, the reporters did not use current statutes, regulations, rules, advisory opinions or forms to answer most of the questions.

Obviously, if the answers were not based on current statutes and rules, then the grade is not accurate.”

Walls disputes these claims, and the call for ethics reform remains strong from editorial boards and columnists across the state and political spectrum.

The Savannah Morning News, for one, writes “Instead of complaining about the report or blasting its authors, lawmakers should read it and digest it — and then vow to raise Georgia to at least a “C” by the next scoring period.”

The Marietta Daily Journal’s Dick Yarbrough also chimes in.

“House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) burped and slurped at the lizard-loafered lobbyists’ trough at the rate of $2,500 for the 40-day legislative session and House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) dined with one lobbyist 13 times in that same period,” Yarbrough writes in his April 21 column.

Yarbrough goes on to write that he is optimistic voters will help legislators take this issue seriously.

“Polls show that Georgians — including a majority of Republican voters — don’t think that is the case,” Yarbrough notes.  “If lawmakers are unwilling to change the system, we voters will change it for them.”

The AJC’s Jay Bookman agrees. It is only a matter of time before the public groundswell changes business as usual under the Gold Dome.

“They were afraid to hold a hearing on ethics legislation because they knew the public would respond to it,” Bookman said during the program. “I think momentum is building.

It’s just a matter of time.”

[Editor’s Note: It was just reported Friday that the Georgia GOP will be putting the $100 lobbyist gift cap question on their July 31 primary ballot]

The Tea Party and Common Cause may indeed be strange bedfellows, but it may very well be a partnership that captures the public sentiment roundly opposes business as usual under the Gold Dome.

“The question was asked: Who won in the ethics battle of 2012?” Bookman said during the PeopleTV broadcast. “I think the public won.

The public won because the issue was put on the table. It will only disappear, if we let it disappear.”


See Matt McWilliams’ bio in the About Us section above.