A lot more talk about ethics, but real ethics enforcement? Not so much

By Tom Baxter

Ethics, a subject long unattended in Georgia, is suddenly all the buzz.

The idea of a total gift ban on lobbyists, once dismissed by the legislative brass as unnecessary, is now on the front burner, with an endorsement by House Speaker David Ralston and a bill expected to pop early in the upcoming session.

Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour, who appeared last month to be getting off with a $5,000 handslap for filing inaccurate travel expense reports, is now said to be the subject of a GBI criminal investigation.

The imbroglio over at the Commission  Formerly Known as the State Ethics Commission continues. Fired former director (to be clear, the most recently fired former director) Stacey Kalberman filed a new complaint, claiming Commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps was talking with Nathan Deal’s lawyer about getting a job with the Newt Gingrich campaign while the commission was investigating the governor. Millsaps has denied the charge.

Everywhere you turn, it seems there’s an ethics angle. “Planned Bullyhood,” Karen Handel’s book, is mostly about her nationally-publicized separation experience with the Komen foundation, but she used the opportunity to take a few more swipes at Deal, her former Republican Primary rival, and the “Good Old Boys Club” at the Capitol. And no one could miss the ethical significance of Glenn Richardson’s return to the public stage, contrite over his lapses as House speaker, to run for a state Senate seat.

Yes, it’s a new day, or so some would have you believe.

Ralston’s turnaround on the gift ban was obviously spurred by the voters’ response in ballot questions in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, although Ralston complained the Republican question, which proposed a $100 cap on gifts, was too limited. It’s less clear why the GBI has gotten involved in the Balfour case, but such things don’t happen by accident. It’s safe to say there’s a strong impulse within the state’s political leadership to cut losses and move past all this talk about ethics.

You’d be right to be cynical about whether all this is actually going to have an beneficial impact, although positive change isn’t entirely out of the question. John Maginnis, one of the great chroniclers of what has been called “the Louisiana way,” said there has been a real change in ethics standards in his state in recent years, particularly during the tenure of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Maginnis said corruption is still evident at the local level – an FBI sting involving a bogus garbage can washing business snared several mayors recently, and former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard is under indictment. But at the state level, at least, standards have been raised, he said. The $50 limit has “kind of cleared out Chris’,” – Ruth’s Chris, a famous hangout for Louisiana politicos. And lobbyists, he added, are “delighted” with the new constraints on their credit cards.

But Maginnis noted that the improvements in Baton Rouge have come “from the top down,” and there any potential usefulness as a model for the future in Georgia starts to slide. Deal began his term as governor on the defensive from a furious attack on his ethics during the governor’s race, and the cronyism which has marked his administration has dismayed even some of those who supported him in 2010. He seems an unlikely candidate to pick up the standard for truly comprehensive ethics reform.

Meanwhile the commission which is supposed to do the actual policing of campaign finances and lobbyists’ disclosures remains rudderless and overwhelmed. (Atlanta Unfiltered editor Jim Walls has written a good short history  of the commission, “the nexus,” he writes,  “of more infighting, vitriol and litigation than a Univision novella.”) As for the proposed changes to be taken up by the General Assembly, it might seem impossible for the legislators to twist an absolute gift ban into insignificance, but you watch ‘em. They’re good at this. There’s a certain amount of remorse among some Republicans that they haven’t behaved better than their predecessors during their first decade in power. But without a leader that comes to very little, and the Republican most likely to fill that role, state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, is still young and relatively little-known.

Last week, with his appeals exhausted, former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman drove from his home to a federal prison in Louisiana to begin serving the remainder of a 6 ½ -year sentence. Siegelman’s conviction on bribery and other charges is a twisted story of politics and the courts in a place where the U.S. attorney’s office has become virtually a fourth branch of state government.

But for our purposes it’s worth it just to look at the core charge leveled against the 66-year-old Democrat. He was convicted of a crime for reappointing HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy to a state hospital board in exchange for $500,000 to retire the debt from an unsuccessful campaign to pass a lottery-for-education referendum. No money went directly to Siegelman. Scrushy had recently been acquitted of charges not unlike those which forced the resignation of Rick Scott, now the governor of Florida, back when he was the CEO of Columbia/HCA.

Raise your hands, everybody who thinks that wouldn’t get a pass, in a state where the Oaky Woods deal got by unprosecuted, where board appointments have become open political currency and nepotism is a commonplace on state boards and commissions. There’s a lot of buzz about ethics in Georgia, but that’s all there is.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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