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Posted: January 28, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Morgan: Ethics lax under Gold Dome

The maddening goings-on in Congress are often blamed on "Inside the Beltway" thinking, meaning people who live and work inside the road that encircles Washington are out of touch with the rest of America.

They live and breathe in a world they’ve created for themselves. Their days and nights are fueled by special interest cash.

Fawning staffers, royal treatment and luxurious benefits give them a heady sense that they’re untouchable, all powerful and flying high above regular folks.

What we see at the State Capitol this year is eerily similar to D.C.’s Inside the Beltway thinking.

Let’s call it "Under the Gold Dome Fever." A few people in the legislature think they operate under a different set of rules than those out here in the real world.Well, they do, sort of.

Take House Speaker David Ralston’s Thanksgiving excursion to Europe with family plus a staffer and spouse in tow. A Washington, D.C., transportation consulting firm spent $17,000 on the jaunt, "the most expensive single expenditure reported by a lobbyist since at least 2005," per the AJC.

Ostensibly, the Speaker was being educated about high speed rail, when high speed rail in Georgia seems a figment of someone’s imagination, considering the state’s lethargic embrace of the concept under Sonny Perdue and the ongoing budget crisis.

In what world was Ralston’s decision OK? Not in yours or mine, for sure.

Accepting a gift like that is prohibited for state employees, even Congress, but under the ethics laws enacted by the Georgia legislature last year, it was perfectly OK because it had to be reported to the state ethics office by the consulting firm within two weeks of the expenditure.

Spending the money, then reporting it makes it perfectly legal and OK, apparently.

House Ethics Committee Chair Joe Wilkinson, a friend from way back, defends the law, saying that full and immediate public disclosure provides information with which "our constituents can decide if it’s appropriate."

So it would seem that Speaker Ralston has only to keep his district constituents happy, and you just know he’ll be delivering nicely for his North Georgia district as long as he’s speaker.

Joe goes on to decry calls for a cap on gifts from lobbyists, saying "it sounds good but just doesn’t work.

To explain, he offered the example of a sports ticket that might be offered to a legislator, but, wait, there’s a $25 limit on lobbyist gifts. "Lobbyists can divide up the cost to get past the cap," he said. And caps can lead to underground lobbying or non-reporting, he added.

To Joe’s credit, he’s leading the charge for more funding for the agency formerly called the State Ethics Commission, but now the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

He’d like to see qualifying fees raised to fund the increase, fees that could then be reimbursed to the candidate from his or her campaign fund.

The agency head, Stacey Kalberman, told a House subcommittee Wednesday the office’s budget has been cut 42 percent since 2008, but required filings in that period increased from some 7,800 a year to as many as 68,000 this year.

The huge bump in filings is due to the new law that says all elected city and county posts and board of education members must now file electronically personal financial disclosure statements with the state by June 30 every year, instead of filing locally.

That means you’ll be able to go to www.ethics.ga.gov and check financial statements submitted by our county commissioners and chair, city council members, local mayors and county board of education members "with the click of a mouse," as Joe puts it.

Those statements will include honorariums received while on official business, all fiduciary positions held, business or investment positions that are more than five percent of the entity’s total interests or worth more than $5,000 at fair market value; also, ownership interest by the officeholder in real estate, as well as that of a spouse or children, if known; and his or her occupation and employer. And there’s more, according to the law’s particulars as provided from Georgia code by Speaker Ralston’s press officer, Marshall Guest.

Let’s not forget what’s going on in the State Senate. Over there, we’ve got the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Jack Murphy of Cumming, under federal investigation for malfeasance and violations of banking codes at failed Integrity Bank of Alpharetta where Murphy was a board member. Murphy is declining to step down from his new post, while the "Committee of 8" that put him there continues to express confidence in him. And in what world is that all right? Think "Alice in Wonderland." It’s simply surreal.

I contacted our State Rep. Doug Holt and State Sen. Rick Jeffares for their thoughts on these matters. Both, wisely for them and probably for Newton County, declined to comment.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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