I recently described the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission – still referred to by most as the State Ethics Commission even though ethics is now far removed from their charge – as a toothless tiger.
This was after the Georgia Legislature increased the agency’s workload without providing the Commission with enough funds to pay for the work created by a new law. This, along with taking away the Commission’s rulemaking authority (their ability to interpret the law and make applicable rules) rendered a once feared beast into a non-threatening pussycat.
But, perhaps I was wrong – it seems that the tiger has some bite left. Unfortunately, it has turned on itself with a furious bite, creating a disastrous wound that will further weaken the enforcement of our “ethics” laws and render the agency as the biggest joke in state government.
As reported by the AJC, the top two staffers at the GGTCFC are leaving – fired for “financial reasons.” I attended a recent Commission meeting where the budget was presented and the agency could cover personnel costs, however, it could not afford to pay for the Legislature’s unfunded mandate. Something needed to be done, but eliminating the top two state officials in charge of enforcing the Ethics in Government Act is not the answer.
Commission Chairman Patrick Milsaps claims he is looking for “common-sense solutions to tighten” their budget. But how is eliminating the agency’s top enforcers – the only attorneys on staff – in order to pay for postage a common sense approach? Does he really think the Commission can find a qualified attorney or someone with a decent understanding of law enforcement to effectively run this agency? I would hate to see that want-ad: state commission seeks figure-head to administer agency that cannot interpret or enforce the law.
If it is a common sense approach that Mr. Milsaps, his fellow commissioners and members of the legislature want, then they should look next door to the State of Alabama. As a Georgia-boy born and bred, I’m embarrassed to say Alabama does it better that we do, but their Republican-led state legislature just passed and their Governor signed into law a bill that guarantees funding for their ethics commission (and they even still call it that) that is constitutionally mandated and cannot be set at less than one-tenth of one percent of the state budget.
With the firing of the Executive Secretary and her Deputy, the Commission as well as the Legislature by way of unfunded mandates, is taking away the enforcement mechanism for the laws that guide the ethical behavior of our elected officials and the transparency of our state government.
Imagine a judicial system without prosecutors. If criminals get caught by the police, but know that there is no one to try their case, wouldn’t the crime be less risky? If they get caught, but don’t get punished, what would stop them? Likewise, why will a member of the Legislature fill out his campaign finance report, or a lobbyist turn in her disclosure report, if there is no one to call them out and punish them if they don’t?
In just six months on the job at Common Cause Georgia, I have seen a quick erosion of public trust in regards to ethics in Georgia government, beginning with the Legislature, and now spreading to the Commission itself. I can’t say that there has been much that one can describe as a “common sense” approach. It is more like a methodical chipping away at the enforcement of the Ethics in Government Act.
Without enforcement, why even have the Act? Perhaps the Legislature should save us all the worry and just eliminate the Act during the special legislative session this summer.
Either way, as it stands now I’ve learned my lesson – our ethics commission isn’t a toothless tiger – it’s a unicorn, a mythical creature that does not exist, just like ethics in Georgia.