The Ethics Reform Georgia Needed

Common Cause Georgia and I would like to express our sincere gratitude toward former representative McCracken Poston and lobbyist Jim Kulstad for speaking with me about their involvement in passing Georgia’s Ethics in Government Act of 1992. Without their contributions this blog post would not have been possible.

McCracken Poston sponsored the 1992 Ethics in Government bill 20 years ago after he had a few eye-opening experiences with lobbyists. Thanks to support from a whole bunch of people, it finally passed on the last day of the legislative session. Despite how awesome it is, it needs to be updated so now we’ve got a new ethics reform package. Help support it, tell your legislators you support it, and together we can get it passed and make our government work for us, not for lobbyists and corporate interests.

Below is the story of how the 1992 Ethics Reform Bill came into being. As you read you will notice some striking similarities between what happened then and what’s happening now. The road to getting the bill passed was not easy, but it was certainly worth all the hard work. The same holds true today.

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that one of the bills Poston co-sponsored (along with the principle author of the bill, Rep. James Beck) dealt with the problem of different area codes in the same county and did not pass. The actual bill was proposed because of a problem with different phone companies in the same county not being required to offer toll-free coverage, and did pass.

Twenty years ago, things were a lot different. The Internet might as well not have existed so far as most people were concerned, and iPods were science fiction. Atlanta had never hosted the Olympics. People knew Hillary Clinton as a politician’s wife instead of secretary of state. Fans lined up for the release of Batman Returns instead of The Dark Knight Rises. I toddled off to preschool instead of driving to work, so I don’t even remember much of what it was like back then (luckily we do have the Internet access now, so I gave myself a quick refresher on what happened). But even if you are old enough to remember all of 1992, odds are you might not recall House Bill 1125, which set out to forever change how lobbyists wheel and deal in Georgia.

Twenty years ago, our ethics legislation was a lot different too. Our state ethics commission didn’t have anything to do with lobbyists and the closest thing we got to the disclosure of lobbyists’ expenditures was a statute on bribery, which isn’t exactly the same thing. Georgia was one of only two states that didn’t require lobbyists to report what they spent on legislators. In other words, our ethics legislation back then was outdated even by the standards of 20 years ago. Thankfully, all of that was about to change, thanks in no small part to then-Representative McCracken Poston.

But what led Poston to propose what became known as the 1992 Ethics in Government Act? The story goes something like this: When Poston arrived in Atlanta for his first year as a freshman legislator, the very first opportunity he had to meet his fellow representatives was a weekend-long “Meet Your Colleagues” seminar, which sounds really nice of the House to sponsor. Except it was actually put on by oil companies, which means that the first chance to meet your peers is also your first chance to meet your lobbyists. If you don’t go to something like that, you may be taking a stand against lobbyists but you’re also losing out on the first time to connect with your fellow freshman legislators—and that’s if you even know it’s sponsored by lobbyists ahead of time. “Meet Your Colleagues” is a pretty innocuous name, after all.

The consequences of such lobbying, however, are anything but innocuous. “Meet Your Colleagues” is a misnomer; Poston argues that such events have nothing to do with meeting colleagues and instead are designed to discourage legislators from introducing legislation they don’t like right from the get-go by making them feel indebted to the companies lobbyists represent. Poston, however, went right ahead and introduced 2 bills that lobbyists weren’t too happy with just one year after his first run-in with lobbyists.

Listening to his constituents, Poston helped write and sponsor two bills: one for toll-free calling in-county (his district had multiple phone companies, so calling across the street could be long distance) and one retail divorcement bill for oil (making it so oil companies couldn’t own gas stations, underselling people who contracted with them for gas). Listening to their employers, lobbyists were quick to respond: one phone company lobbyist told Poston that they sure would miss him at the Masters that year and oil lobbyists told him the felt betrayed (after all, they’d had that “Meet Your Colleagues” weekend just a year before).

Only the phone bill ended up passing, but the lobbyist response did lay the groundwork for what Poston would later consider to be his proudest achievement in the legislature. To defeat the oil retail divorcement bill, oil companies spent $800,000. Or at least that’s what one person admitted was spent—since there was no way to track lobbyist expenditures and therefore no way of knowing who actually spent what; it very well could have been more.

Not too long after that, Poston heard that then-Secretary of State Max Cleland was putting together a Blue Ribbon Commission on Ethics in Government. Poston asked to be on the commission, saying that he wanted to present the results as a bill; Cleland agreed. According to Jim Kulstad, lobbying wasn’t originally one of the subjects that the Commission was going to look at, but they soon realized that it was a major issue where ethics was concerned. Lobbying quickly became one of the central topics, and soon the Commission (whose members included former Common Cause Georgia Executive Director Melissa Metcalf) was finished with its work and Poston was preparing to introduce his bill.

Poston’s bill, HB-1125, the 1992 Ethics in Government Act, was soon in the middle of the process for making a bill a law, with one newspaper reporting that it was “taking the spotlight” of the legislative session from the very first day of the session. However, lobbyists didn’t seem too worried, with the Associated Press reporting that lobbyists planned to carry on with “business as usual.” At times it looked like the lobbyists didn’t have any reason to worry; HB-1125 often stalled in committee or had parts removed so that by the time it was ready to get out of committee and onto the House floor it was “in a far different form” than the original, according to the Waycross Journal-Herald.

That’s not to say that these legislators were all against ethics reform, though there were certainly some who didn’t want to lose the perks and influence they gained from their associations with lobbyists. Instead, Poston thinks that much of the opposition to the bill came down to the idea that, “I can’t believe you’re challenging my integrity—I can’t be bought for a meal” (Sound familiar?). While it’s true that a lunch here or there might not influence a legislator’s decision on a vote, that “you can’t buy a legislator for a lunch,” it’s impossible to judge the value of 30 years worth of lunches and the friendships they lead to, according to Poston. By simplifying lobbying expenditures to the idea that someone could “be bought for a lunch,” the bill’s opponents were missing a larger and systematic problem.

Despite the opposition, there were quite a few things that helped the bill succeed. A handful of ethics scandals provided “jet fuel” to the fire that was burning in support of ethics reform. Other legislators worked during debates on the House floor to strengthen the bill and bring it closer to its original form. The press, especially the AJC, focused their attention on the situation. Whenever the bill would stall in committee, the AJC would release the names and phone numbers of committee members, who would soon be flooded with phone calls from constituents who told them they wanted the ethics bill passed. In other words, passing this bill was very much a group effort and provided proof that ethics reform was both needed and wanted in Georgia.

Eventually, different versions of the ethics bill were passed in the House and Senate and a conference committee set to negotiating and compromising to find a version that both bodies could agree on. It was neither an easy nor speedy process, but on the very last day of Georgia’s 1992 legislative session, March 31, the Ethics in Government Act was passed. The governor signed it into law within a week.

The effects of this bill are far-reaching: Today, Georgians can see who is influencing their legislators because lobbyists are required to disclose their expenditures. This bill, and further ethics reform efforts, shine a light on the political process that gives voters more confidence in their legislators and gives legislators better rapport with their voters. It helps make the government accountable to the people, not to the corporations with money to fund lobbyists.

As Poston pointed out to me, we have a much different stance on lobbying in the legislature than we do in the judiciary. If you took a judge out to lunch during your trial to try and get them to rule the way you wanted, it’s entirely possible that that could be constituted as bribery. And while the two situations aren’t exactly the same, Georgia lawyers and judges have laid out and enforce a pretty detailed code of professional conduct for themselves. Georgia legislators have O.C.G.A. § 45-10-91, which basically says that you can file a complaint and they’ll forward it to the appropriate committee. Not quite the same thing. As far as our ethics legislation is concerned, we’ve let ourselves fall behind, again.

But the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform is working to get our ethics laws up to snuff with other states. There have been two comprehensive ethics bills introduced during this session. HB 1105 and SB 391 aim to close some of the loopholes in our current ethics laws. These bills probably will not accomplish as much as the 1992 legislation did, but our hope is that people will be able to look back and say that we took a step forward. By supporting this new ethics reform package, by calling our legislators and letting them know that we want ethics reform, we can ensure that the blog writers twenty years from now will have some great content for their stories.

If you want to hear more about Poston’s experience fighting for ethics reform, join us for the first CCGA Event Series – The Speaker v. Ethics Reform where Poston will be the featured speaker.

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One Response to The Ethics Reform Georgia Needed

  1. Ethics accountability by our General Assembly is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle in our state government. Georgia’s Attorney General, Sam Olens, is, at the same time, the attorney for the State’s Ethics Commission Director, the Attorney for the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, and pushing for stronger Sunshine law; yet, Attorney General Sam Olens just filed a “Response in Opposition” to the lifting of a Protective Order that would have disclosed the confirmed ethical violations by HIS Defendants – the Board of Regents of the USG. This is a serious “Conflict of Interest.”
    Added to this hypocrisy, the new Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Senator Buddy Carter, declined to meet to discuss what “Open Record” violations I can legally discuss because, in his email, Attorney General Sam Olens told him not to meet with me.
    Among the many confirmed ethical and fiscal violations is one violation that negatively affects all USG faculty, staff and students and has been in place for years. And now it is on record that our state’s Attorney General dictates to our General Assembly what documents they can read and who they can meet with and it will not be about the confirmed ethical violations by HIS defendants.
    The March issue of the GEORGIA TREND has Attorney General Sam Olens’ photo on front and an article inside regarding Olens’ first year in office. While GEORGIA TREND is very credible and respected journalism, they clearly missed the “whole” story. I have emailed them many of the facts. I also have a 16-page “Message to the General Assembly” that details what facts I can disclose legally.
    Sam Olens is quick to use the “HIPPA” law to prevent Georgians from viewing the Depositions that confirm ALL the ethical and fiscal violations by HIS Defendants. I have even offered to keep the “HIPPA” violations regarding a USG president sealed as long as the other violations are made public. Attorney General Sam Olens will not respond. Many of the violatioins are still in place and are negatively affecting many and potentially any USG faculty, staff or student – and their families. I encourage someone to ask him. Then contact me for the truth. Fulton County Superior Court; Elizabeth Caldon V BOR Case No. 2009-CV-165267

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