Ethics reform stymied by federal intrusion

Ethics reform stymied by federal intrusion

January 26th, 2010 in Georgia

Legislature coverage

Follow coverage of the Georgia Legislature by Ashley Speagle in the Times Free Press in print and online at timesfreepress.com.

By Ashley Speagle, Correspondent

ATLANTA -- Attorneys at a legislative committee hearing Monday said a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision may restrict ethics reform this session.

Handed down last week, the Supreme Court decision struck down a long-standing rule that limited the amount of money that corporations can give to political campaigns. Such limitations constrict the organizations' right to free speech, the justices said in a 5-4 decision.

With the ruling, "any legislation that limits corporations' say may have problems," attorney Robert Highsmith told the House and Senate committee Monday.

"Campaign contribution limits don't make sense in this environment," attorney Doug Chalmers said.

But some legislators at the hearing said they will continue to push their ethics legislation despite any assumptions that reform may not be possible.

"Even if it will always be so, it is our obligation to do what we can to moderate money," said Rep. Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a member of the House Ethics Committee who is sponsoring ethics legislation.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said the committee will hold another session on ethics regulations review before hearing current legislation.

Some legislators listed ethics reform as a priority this session after allegations that former House speaker Glenn Richardson had an affair with a lobbyist while pushing legislation favorable to a company she represented. Mr. Richardson has since resigned.

At Monday's hearing, Bob Irvin, chairman of the advocacy group Common Cause of Georgia and a former Republican legislator, said the scandal created an opportunity to pass necessary bills.

He suggested campaign contribution limits and an elimination of automatic adjustments to limits, which accommodate inflation. He also recommended limits on lobbyists' gifts and campaign money transfers and said the state should create an ethics code and an independent ethics panel.

The Legislature should bestow authority to rule on ethics complaints to an ethics panel, he said, which would operate separately from the State Ethics Commission.

"We were for ethics, openness and accountability before we were for lower taxes and gun rights," Mr. Irvin told other Republicans at the hearing. "It was part of our core creed for 30 years, it seemed, until we took over."

The current Ethics Commission only monitors whether disclosure forms for campaign finances and lobbyist gifts are filed correctly, said Bill Jordan, former Ethics Commission chairman.

"We decide if disclosures are made, not what's right and wrong," he said. "The commission is not populated with legislators to handle those decisions."

While there already are limits on legislators accepting campaign money and gifts, some present at Monday's hearing said public pressure may create stricter and more complicated rules, but those still would not control unethical acts.

"People who take bribes are going to take bribes, but you can set the tone at the top through a code of ethics," Mr. Jordan said.

Mr. Highsmith compared money in politics to a leak in the attic.

"It's going to find its way in the house," he said.