Don McKee: Lobbyist loophole suddenly emerges in ethics law tranparency
by Don McKee
Columnist
April 06, 2011 12:00 AM | 1669 views | 2 2 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Don McKee
Don McKee
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The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Act of 2010 was going to bring "meaningful ethics reform" involving "real changes that improve transparency," according to the lawyer for Georgia House Speaker David Ralston.

So said attorney David Chalmers in a June 2010 op-ed piece for the Atlanta newspaper. He said the new law would "dramatically increase transparency at the county and municipal level" and would close at least one lobbyist loophole. Of course, the most glaring loophole was the failure to set any limit whatsoever on lobbyist gifts to legislators.

But now it turns out the new law touted by the Speaker's lawyer actually has a loophole that could benefit the Speaker's staff and a host of other state employees. The loophole was uncovered by lawyer Chalmers who argued before the state ethics commission that the law does not require disclosure of lobbyist spending for "an employee or family member of a public officer" - although it is required of the officials themselves.

The ethics commission on Tuesday approved 3-1 an advisory opinion by its executive director holding that lobbyists do not have to report spending for public employees or staff members under the law.

This is relevant to Speaker Ralston's $17,000 lobbyist-paid excursion to Europe last year for him, family members and staff members. Ralston said he accepted the trip to study high-speed trains, the agenda of the lobbying firm.

Under the new ethics commission ruling, the expenses paid for Ralston's chief of staff and his wife would not have to be disclosed, but money spent on the speaker and his family would have to be reported. His lawyer lost that point.

Chalmers said that some lobbying clients, among them the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, became concerned about not disclosing spending on public employees and families after the Ralston trip to Europe was reported and made the news.

Contrasting his comments about transparency after the law was signed last year, Chalmers told the ethics commission he did not believe lobbyist spending on public employees of families of public officials should be disclosed. He should be familiar with the law. Last June he wrote that he was "invited to testify and/or provide input on parts of the bill."

Ethics commission executive director Stacey Kalberman in her advisory opinion noted the law "very specifically defines those items which are considered to be expenditures but does not require the reporting of all those expenditures."

Why? "One might ask why the definition of expenditure was drafted to include expenses made to influence the actions of a public employee or to include food and gifts to a family member if not to report and disclose such expenditures to the public." Why indeed?

This ruling will shut the door on future reporting of scads of meals and gifts by lobbyists to state employees who work for those public officials that make law and or policy in this state.

Georgia citizens are listening for a chorus of "Let's close the loophole" under the Gold Dome.

dmckee9613@aol.com
Comments
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el paso
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April 08, 2011
Pat H right on an issue, I do not know what to say
Pat H
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April 06, 2011
Not only close the door, but make it illegal to go on "trips" with family and paid by lobbyists.

The last speaker was a disaster and was allowed to remain at his post although it was well known to the members. Again, we have so-called people's representatives turning a blind eye to Ralston.

They should be clamoring for Ralston's resignation. The people are.
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