Some of you may have noticed that we are in the process of updating our website. One of our goals was to have a current list of General Assembly members who filed their disclosure reports late. The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission keeps records of all reports and even has a section on their website devoted to late and non filers. The problem is that they keep records on every state public official, meaning there are hundreds of records to sift through in order to find the information we want.
As an attempt to lessen our workload, we made an open records request to the Commission assuming they could do the work in half the time it’d take us to individually look up all 236 state legislators and see if they’re on the late/non-filer list. We received a list back from the Commission and posted it to our website. However we quickly found out all but a handful of the people included were no longer serving in the General Assembly. Not only does this make Common Cause look bad, but it also screams volumes about how our Legislators feel about their responsibility to file reports on time. When there are Legislators with fines from 2008 that still haven’t been paid, there is a flaw in the system.
Firstly, why are these records so difficult to find? There is no simple way for a citizen to find this information. Having the entire database online is wonderful for the sake of transparency, but when it takes HOURS to track down the information. Is that really a victory? We certainly cannot blame the Ethics Commission. They don’t have the funding or man power to create a system that would make it easier. They are the ones literally swimming in paperwork because of their added responsibilities. And it seems like our legislators don’t want to make it any easier.
Some of the violators that were correctly included on the Commission list had fines over $350 that had been accrued over YEARS! When we began doing our own searching, we found people with over $1,000 in fines, and more than 15 violations. I may sound conspiratorial but it seems like our representatives are trying to hide their violations and weaken the only agency that can enforce the penalties. It seems like they feel they can continue to disregard the deadlines because the information about their violations are virtually hidden from the public.
There simply is no reason for our elected officials to be missing these deadlines and ignoring their late fees. We have entrusted them with the responsibility to lead our state, if they can’t be timely that’s a major issue. What’s even worse than being late, is that they are not being held accountable for their actions. If you submit something late, you take responsibility for it and pay up. They shouldn’t be leaving these fines unpaid. It takes money away from the Ethics Commission and hurts transparency in general, because if the reports aren’t in on time then the public can’t see where the money is coming from. See below for the 2011 filing schedule.
We think it’s important that the public have access to this information in a format that is easily available. We are currently in the process of looking up all General Assembly members and creating a correct list of violators with relevant information. It is our hope that constituents will see the numbers for themselves and realize that our system has to change if we are to really take ethics seriously in Georgia.