Ga.’s broken ethics law must be fixed

Georgia’s government has a responsibility to function openly, honestly, efficiently, and with integrity. The conduct of public officials is important when entrusted to oversee the public’s affairs.
Transparency and accountability have been intentionally erased in recent years by our current leadership. We need a much sharper focus on ethics.
Over the last several years, there has been a serious erosion of the public’s trust in government, at every level, national, state, and local, because of an incredible number of cases of corruption and serious ethical and moral breaches.
The recent revelations about Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson are only the latest and most vivid illustrations of what has been going on under the Gold Dome in recent years.
Hiding government activities by saying one thing to the public and then, “winking and nodding” to potential contributors, while cutting veiled, back-room “Public-Private-Partnerships” (or Politically Expedient-Personal-Partnerships) is wrong.
Absorbing the million dollar list of “goodies” being passed out annually by a certain posse of special interest lobbyists is wrong.
Instituting a stealth mechanism to annually ratchet up the maximum campaign contributions is wrong.
Establishing private political action committees like the PerduePAC, to accept unlimited contributions even after the public official can no longer seek reelection, but can certainly facilitate backdoor channeling of contributions from special interests, is wrong.
To paraphrase that profoundly intelligent philosopher, Charlie Daniels, “Hell’s broke loose in Georgia and the Devil is dealing the cards.”
Let’s connect the dots, people, so you can know how this was done. The stealth erosion of our Ethics in Government Law began back in 2005.
Step One: After overseeing ethics investigations of the incumbent governor and senate majority leader, Teddy Lee, the executive secretary of the state Ethics Commission, was fired. This happened after the governor was able to orchestrate the resignation of certain board members and was able to obtain the appointment of a majority of his own buddies.
Step Two: Shortly thereafter the most brutal damage was inflicted. The state Ethics Commission’s role in overseeing legislative misconduct and conflicts of interest was gutted by H.B. 48 and the establishment of the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee.
After the House version of the bill crossed over to the Senate, the Senate leadership, under President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, crafted the language to transfer oversight of the legislature from the state Ethics Commission to their own committee whose members would then be appointed by the speaker and the president pro tem.
The result is no oversight as to conflicts of interests, suppressed opportunity for public complaint, and no stiff enforcement. Talk about “letting the fox guard the henhouse.”
Step Three: Even before the economy began to crash, the governor and legislature used their unbridled power to gut the budget funding for the commission, thereby eroding its investigative personnel and resources. After a onetime bump up in spending to get new computers and office space, the gutting resumed; the 2009 session inflicted another 30 percent cut.
Step Four: In the 2009 legislative session, SB 168 erased the rulemaking authority of the state Ethics Commission. Again stealthily undermining its independent investigative ability. This occurred after the executive secretary had instituted rules to perform random checks of campaign disclosure reports filed by legislators and a new rule for reporting the acceptance of airplane trips funded by lobbyists.
Most recently: When the current Executive Secretary Rick Thompson instituted some of these new investigative rules and continued to administer the commission in a responsible manner despite the attempts to undermine it, he too was encouraged by the Gold Dome leadership to “move on.” He resigned.
Our governing system is broken. Today’s politicians and their political consultants (or “Machiavelli Merchants,” as I like to call them), create “talking points” and punditry that shifts the public’s focus, generates short-term anger or passion, and lets the real problems, like transportation, education, job creation, water management, and proper election oversight, slip past election day.
These weapons of manipulation and deceit (WMDs) can be eradicated by shining light on these tricks, by keeping government operations open and transparent and by holding government officials accountable.
Niccolo Machiavelli, the guru and mentor for so many of today’s cynical and manipulative political consultants, didn’t believe that truth was the right path for politicians. In his book “The Prince,” he wrote: “How praiseworthy it is that a prince keeps his word and governs by candor instead of craft, everyone knows. Yet the experience of our own time shows that those princes who had little regard for their word and had the craftiness to turn men’s minds have accomplished great things and, in the end, have overcome those who governed their actions by their pledges.”
So what is the solution? Repair the Ethics in Government Law. This is not about politics. This is about restoring the integrity of our government. Ethics is one of the few issues where the polarizing political rhetoric doesn’t stick. How to repair?
Amend the Ethics in Government Act by removing the partisan political appointments of the state Ethics Commission members by the governor, the Senate Committee on Assignments, and the speaker, and transfer the appointment authority to the Georgia Supreme Court. We must remove politics from ethics enforcement.
Restore and clarify the state Ethics Commission’s authority to investigate and fine inappropriate legislative conduct; i.e., erase Part 6 of H.B. 48.
Restore the independent rulemaking authority to the state Ethics Commission.
Completely eliminate all ex parte communications between state Ethics Commission Board members and parties with pending or upcoming matters.
Make the inspector general totally independent of the governor’s office. Transfer appointment authority to the Supreme Court.
Establish an independent funding source for the state Ethics Commission annual budget. This would remove any political influence of the budget process from the ethics oversight process. One such potential revenue source for this could be candidate qualifying fees. Another could be fines for ethics violations.
Until YOU, the people of Georgia, rise up and insist that reforming the state’s Ethics in Government Law must be of top priority on every elected official’s “to do list,” the folks under the Gold Dome will not listen.
When you do, the bridge of trust will be rebuilt, and our government will get back to work on solving the real problems we face and not just the ones that their political contributors want them to do.
Gary Horlacher
Peachtree City, Ga.

[Horlacher, an attorney, is a Democratic candidate for Georgia Secretary of State. His website is garyforsecretary.com.]