Disclosures vs. Ethics

In a 2009 report, the Center for Public Integrity published a report ranking the stringency of state laws regarding financial disclosures made by state legislators. Georgia ranked 7th

This report on financial disclosures was recently, and in the past, cited by House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson as a reason why real ethics legislation need not pass. PolitiFact Georgia has just rated this reasoning of Wilkinson as FALSE.  Why? Because ethics is a whole lot more than disclosures, a convenient slip of logic by legislators.

But let’s see how that distinction has been handled by Mr. Wilkinson and the legislature.  First, they stripped the State Ethics Commission of the word “Ethics” and “simplified” its name to a small paragraph about financial disclosures.  Then, they hamstrung its ability to regulate, investigate, and prosecute violations of disclosure laws, and other ethics laws.  Then, they did not bother to address any of the practices or procedures regarding conflicts of interest.  

In fact, the “ethics” bill that passed last year partly REDUCED disclosure requirements by exempting individuals who serve on State Boards or Commissions from personal financial disclosures.  But even the highest level of disclosure doesn’t make something ethical.  For example, a lobbyist recently disclosed spending $17,000 on a family vacation  fact-finding trip to Germany for Speaker of the House David Ralston.    Just because you know the lobbyist spent the $17,000 doesn’t mean it has to be ethical, does it? 

So, is disclosure an element of ethics? Absolutely. But ethics also includes conflicts of interests, campaign contribution limits, pay-to-play political donations, regulatory ability to investigate violations of disclosure or other laws, financial transfers between campaign which obfuscate investigations by legislative committees, etc., etc…..

Disclosure is not ethics. But it is the first step. After disclosure comes auditing, evaluating conflicts of interest, finding violations, and prosecuting violations. So, House Ethics Committee, we are going to follow your lead, and in seeking ethics reform, play the renaming game, and call you the “Committee of Partial Translucency regarding Non-Exempt Disclosures” or something catchy like that.

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