Act two begins in this year's ethics saga

A decision point is approaching for Georgia’s political leaders when it comes to ethics.
In the opening act, the Senate made the first appearance by passing a rule on its members that limits gifts from lobbyists to $100. The House responded by passing legislation that bans all gifts -- except those given to organized groups of legislators or that can be characterized as part of their official duty.
The leaders of the two chambers have publicly criticized each other’s handiwork as weakened by exceptions. For example, is the Senate limit $100 per instance, per session, per day or what? And the House proposal still allows lodging and meals for whatever official duties may be.
More than one cynical observer has predicted that the two chambers would hold fast their positions and refuse to pass anything. Members in each could say, “We tried. It was those other guys that blocked it.”
The House has recently put the issue back in the Senate’s court. Since Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle presides over the Senate, he’s the one who has to decide whether the cynics are right or not.
Cagle’s own career might be an example of how good ethics lead to good politics. After all, he became lieutenant governor by beating Ralph Reed in the Republican primary, partly over questions about Reed’s involvement with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was under investigation at the time and has since served time in federal prison for fraud.
Abramoff was recently in Georgia for what Common Cause called Ethics Week. The week began with the House voting 164-4 for the House proposal, House Bill 142 sponsored by Speaker David Ralston.

Abramoff, who ran Washington’s largest, most generous, most successful lobbying firm for 10 years, isn’t impressed by the bill.

“If I were a lobbyist here, I would run through that bill in about three seconds,” he said. “There are too many loopholes there.”

He made his comments during a luncheon at the Atlanta Press Club, and later he was seen at the statehouse delivering them one-on-one.

“It’s like a lobbyist’s Disneyland here,” he said. To promote his memoir, he’s already traveled around the state some and concluded that everyone he’s met -- other than politicians -- is clamoring for tough ethics legislation.

He describes what that would look like, something that would have foiled him. Spending many months of reflection in a federal prison provides the opportunity to clarify one’s observations, he said.

An effective law would allow no gifts of any sort, under any circumstances from lobbyists, he said. Even campaign contributions from them would be limited, and they and their clients wouldn’t be allowed to bundle donations from others or direct political action committees, he adds.

Gifts, lavish dinners and exotic golf trips were the tools he used to win votes from members of Congress, and that’s what gave him an advantage over honest lobbyists and citizen activists, he said, because he tapped into the politicians’ human nature.

“When you do me a favor of any kind, if I’m not a jerk, I’m going to be grateful,” he said, noting that gratitude from a politician translates into votes.

People who make the lobbying choice would consciously give up some rights to campaign donations, a choice Abramoff figures would pass constitutional muster. But he admits he’s no lawyer.

He would classify as a lobbyist anyone who gets paid to influence government officials. He said federal laws are so vague that he would not have fallen under the definition of lobbyist even at the peak of his lobbying activity.

His final reform would be a 10-year period after leaving office before engaging in lobbying.

We’ll know soon whether or not Cagle and Ralston, or even Gov. Nathan Deal, take the advice of a man who spent a decade exploiting federal ethics rules strong enough to eventually send him to prison. Thirteen days remain in the 2013 legislative session, and another 40 next year before the trio of state leaders face voters again.

They have each said they recognize the importance voters attach to ethics reform, and now they’ve had a master thief tell them how to build the foolproof lock. What will they do with the information?

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News.)

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