May 21, 2001: We are fortunate in Georgia that we have managed to avoid some of the scandals and improprieties that have hit other state governments.

But watch out. We have the potential for a major disaster because of a loophole in our ethics law big enough to drive a road-grading machine and a contract full of high-tech goodies through. Georgia currently has one of the weakest ethics laws in the country. I know. I serve as a member of the State Ethics Commission. State law mainly confines our activities to monitoring disclosure forms submitted by elected officials and lobbyists. Left out of that law is any oversight of a group of people who call themselves contractors and consultants. However they describe themselves, they function much like lobbyists, actively competing for a piece of the $14 billion in the current state budget for themselves or their clients, only they don’t have to tell anybody what they are doing. It’s the law.

The backgrounds of these consultant/contractors are impressive. Some are wealthy businessmen. Some are former state legislators or Congressmen. Some were chiefs of staff to governors. Some were elected to statewide office in another life. Some are former law partners to government influentials. Some manage statewide election campaigns for key officials. All have impeccable contacts inside state government and considerably more influence on how the state budget gets spent than many registered lobbyists. They don’t have to register, according to the law, because they don’t “influence legislation”, i.e. lobby the Legislature. That is because they don’t have to. They wheel and deal at the top of state government. Nobody knows who they see or what strings they pull for themselves and their clients.

A registered lobbyist takes a legislator to a ballgame or buys breakfast and that has to be reported to the Ethics Commission. That is only fair because you have a right to know who is influencing the expenditures of your tax dollars. What isn’t fair is that a contractor can provide a vacation home to an elected official and doesn’t have to report it, or that contractors and consultants can quietly apply their considerable clout with state agencies for projects that can and often do compete with a registered lobbyist, who doesn’t have the same access. One high-powered – and unregistered – consulting firm even brags on their web pages about their “full blown lobbying initiative” for one of their clients.

There is blame enough to go around on why we allow this kind of good ol’ boy network to exist without full public disclosure. The easiest target is, of course, the Legislature. As if the ethics laws aren’t weak enough, there was a brief attempt by a group of legislators in the last session, led by House majority leader Larry Walker, of Perry, to weaken the laws even further. Happily, it didn’t get very far and if it rears its ugly head next year, I will decimate a forest for the newsprint to fight it.

The media deserves some of the blame. They know this stuff is going on but with the exception of Dale Russell, of Fox5 in Atlanta and veteran political reporter Bill Shipp, most have chosen to sit on their duffs and ignore the issue.

But we must share the blame, too. Politicians make decisions in only one of two ways. Either through pressure applied or by an absence of pressure. In the case of strong ethics law, we have shown that we don’t seem to care how the state spends our money. Our lawmakers equate that to a lack of pressure.

There is some good news. The Georgia Technology Authority is going to require contractor/consultants to register before the GTA’s $600 million to $I billion contract is let out for bids and Republican Sonny Perdue, of Bonaire, introduced a bill to force these consultant-types to play by the same rules as registered lobbyists.

There is simply too much state government money available to many consultants who have too much influence, too much access and too little accountability. The state should not allow its business to be handled behind closed doors. Governor Roy Barnes prides himself on openness. He can do us all a favor by insisting that the all contractors and consultants and lobbyists seeking state contracts do their business in public.

That noted political philosopher, Groucho Marx, once said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

He just described our ethics laws.