Saturday, January 23, 2010

Lobbyists and Public Corruption in Georgia

Years ago, my great grandfather left his farm in South Georgia to go to the State Capital in Atlanta. He was proud to be elected to serve in the state legislature. But after only one term, he quit in disgust. According to my grandmother, he was fed up with all the bribery and public corruption he witnessed in Atlanta. But have things really changed very much in the past century since my great grandfather went to Atlanta?
Without question, I believe there are many honest legislators in Atlanta today. But in the past five years, we have witnessed several top state public officials, including the former Senate Majority Leader and State School Superintendant, among others, go to federal prison. (I was involved in one of these prosecutions--I was the federal prosecutor who prosecuted former State Senator Charles Walker).
Such prosecutions may help in some small measure. But criminal prosecutions address only the symptoms. In my opinion, Georgia needs to go much further in order to stem the problem of public corruption. We need true ethics reform in Georgia. In particular, in my opinion, we need lobbying reform in this State, including strict limits on the amounts of gifts allowed by lobbyists to legislators. Such legislation has reportedly been introduced. It deserves our support -- and for good reason.
Presently, each year, lobbyists get in bed with legislators and "wine and dine them" with over a million dollars in total reported gifts. And you can't tell me that the lobbyists aren't expecting (and getting) something in return from some legislators! It often appears that lobbyists, not legislators, make the laws in this State. But now is the time to do something about it!
The recent fall from grace by State House Speaker Richardson should serve as a rallying cry for all those honest legislators, and others, who want to clean up this God-forsaken mess! Richardson, who recently resigned in disgrace, only after his wife publicly disclosed his alleged affair with a lobbyist, was literally plied with "wine, women, and song," to the tune of a total of more than $50,000.00 in (reported) lobbyists' gifts over the past four years. For example, lobbyists had reportedly flown him to Chicago and entertained him at Cubs baseball games, at no expense to Richardson. The crazy thing about all this is that, presently, this is all legal (and doesn't violate weak state ethics rules either)! Many of these practices may currently be legal, but, in my opinion, they are outrageous and out of control.
But all this can change! Please, get involved! Let's throw out the money changers and sweep the State Capital clean! Contact your legislators and let them know what you think! Also, contact citizens' watchdog groups, such as Common Cause of Georgia, and volunteer to help clean up this state! Until we have true ethics (and lobbying) reform in this state, we are doomed to repeat the current vicious cycle of public corruption trials and corrupt special interest politics. My great grandfather cannot go back to the State Legislature now. It's too late for him. But it's not too late for us and our children! We need not wait another century before we begin true ethics reform in this State!

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