Georgia gets D- grade in 2015 State Integrity Investigation

State’s ethics ranking rises, but still no cause for celebration

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The biggest crowd pleaser in Georgia's State Capitol Museum is the taxidermy display of a two-headed calf that gazes in two directions from a display case on the top floor of the gold-domed capitol building. One pair of eyes looks toward the House chamber, the other toward the Senate.

That's mere coincidence, most likely, and not intended as a warning to lawmakers that “the cow is watching you.”

If it is a warning, it’s not having much effect. There's not enough oversight and accountability built into the operation of Georgia's state government, which led to some unethical behavior and a high risk of corruption over the past two years and earned Georgia a score of D-, placing it 24th in the State Integrity Investigation, a national assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

That's a major improvement from 50th on the list three years ago. However, the two scores are not directly comparable because of changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology, like eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.

Ethics reform, with loopholes

The same year that Georgia scored 50th in the integrity investigation, both political parties polled voters during the 2012 primary on whether there should be restrictions on gifts to lawmakers.

At the time, lobbyists were able to spend unlimited amounts on gifts to politicians as long as they reported their spending.

The majority of Georgians said yes, please limit gifts, and the legislature followed suit with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Act of 2013, which went into effect last year.

Gifts to individual lawmakers are now capped at $75. This simple restriction has helped significantly in boosting Georgia's grade.

Lawmakers and lobbyists are adjusting to the new reality.  For the most part, the swanky steak dinners and “educational” golfing trips have been replaced by more modest expenditures, but not all the fun is gone for politicians.

The new law does not require state employees to register as lobbyists.  And without registration, there is no reporting requirement and the limit is off.

This allows lobbyists for Georgia's public universities, who are state employees, to continue to hand out gifts such as football tickets to politicians.

“The law permits that,” said University of Georgia Political Science Professor Charles Bullock. “You can't get tickets to the [Atlanta] Falcons, but [the University of Georgia] can say here are tickets to the president's box,” he said, referring to the suite at the university’s football stadium.

Governor wields considerable clout

Georgia has a CEO-style governorship and a part-time legislature that meets just 40 days a year.

This puts a lot of power into the hands of the governor.  He or she introduces the state budget, and lawmakers get just a few weeks to influence the spending plan “around the edges,” said Alan Essig, the former head of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. “The governor gets 95 percent of what he wants,” he said.

Gov. Nathan Deal is using his power to push for innovative prison reform, which he's championed for the past four years.

But he’s also had his share of ethical challenges. He’s been accused of using patronage and cronyism in rewarding loyal lawmakers with judgeships and lucrative state jobs. He's also appointed friends to powerful state boards who then helped fund his re-election campaign.

Much of this is still legal in Georgia, and it contributed to the state earning an F in the category of executive accountability.

Weak on ethics

Georgia's ethics agency, which has the official title of Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, received a scathing performance report from the State Auditor last year that revealed dysfunction and an inability to do its job of effective ethics enforcement.

That includes making sure lobbyists and officials properly file the required reports. 

It just didn't happen, not even sporadically. 

There was a goal of randomly auditing 5 percent of filings, according to Maria Bazile, compliance and education manager for the commission, but there weren't enough employees to do it.

Much of the troubles plaguing the commission began with cronyism when members of the governor's staff reportedly influenced the hiring of a new executive director in 2011.

Last year, a jury awarded former director Stacey Kalberman $700,000 dollars in a whistleblower lawsuit.

That same year, the new executive director, Holly LaBerge, was fired by the commission board after being fined $10,000 dollars for not turning over evidence in the lawsuit.

With that much ethics troubles in the headlines during an election year, Deal made a promise to expand the ethics commission and weaken the influence the governor has on its make-up.

But once re-elected, Deal scrapped that idea and instead pumped more money into the agency to pay for eight new positions in an attempt to remedy what the state audit called an entity that has lost “public trust and confidence.” The governor continues to control three of the five appointments to the board, as well as its budget.

In 2014, state Sen. Jason Carter tried unsuccessfully to create an ethics entity with an independent budget. The Democrat was also unsuccessful in challenging Deal for the governorship that year. A similar suggestion of making the commission more independent was made in the state audit, but has been ignored.

In April, Stefan Ritter, an 18-year veteran of the attorney general's office became the new executive director of the commission.

The struggles with funding and a lack of independence resulted in a score of D- for Georgia's ethics enforcement.

Open records tough to get

Filing a Freedom of Information request in Georgia is very simple, but getting the requested documents is a continuing struggle, according to the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

State agencies and departments must answer a written request within three business days, but the answers they give are often seen by journalists as stall tactics. Some agencies respond with inflated costs for preparing the documents.  

Georgia's large news organizations, like WSB-TV or the Atlanta Journal Constitution, will use their lawyers to get what they need.

For example, when WSB-TV requested documents from the Department of Human Resources for a story on child abuse in 2013, it was initially told to pay thousands of dollars, said reporter Lori Geary.  After some negotiations, the agency finally released the information, but it was heavily redacted.

For those not equipped with a legal department, a mediation program within the attorney general's office can intervene if agencies are not forthcoming, but the program is voluntary and up to the good will of the attorney general’s office.

Georgia's shortcomings in oversight and accountability pose a continued risk for corruption and unethical conduct in state government, and the State Integrity Investigation shows that improvements over the past few years are largely incremental.

After all, it's not just the two-headed calf on the top floor of the capitol that's watching. 

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