Ethics and the Legislature

By Angela Speir Phelps

We hear a lot of talk about ethics in government – particularly the need for more. Candidates for public office often talk about the need for ethics reform and those elected talk about their staunch support for strengthening ethics in government. But talk is cheap. Where the rubber meets the road is how one acts, how they conduct the people’s business, and how they vote when presented with the opportunity to stand up for what’s right. A message from a podium is nothing more than an empty promise if forgotten once elected.

This year, on the heels of a highly publicized scandal involving the cozy relationship between the former Speaker of the House and a lobbyist for Atlanta Gas Light Company and more than one front-page news story about elected officials using the power and influence of their office for personal gain, the legislature passed ethics reform in SB17.

Georgia Watch actively engaged at the legislature regarding this bill to encourage stronger reform. We supported restrictions on lobbyists giving gifts to legislators and capping the amount of gifts. We also supported full disclosure of money spent by lobbyists on legislators for travel and entertainment. On April 19, 2010 we noted in an OpEd that the bill as written in its current form would allow lobbyists to pay for travel for public officials without disclosing it – including airfare, meals, and hotel accommodations – as long as the travel was related to bringing a public official to a meeting.

Under the proposal, a lobbyist could legally buy a legislator a first class trip to the tropics, including plane ticket, room at the Ritz Carlton, and room service and it would not have to be disclosed if the trip was for the purpose of a meeting. We pointed out this glaring flaw and insisted that the public has a right to know how much money lobbyists are spending on legislators. The following morning, April 20, the provision was removed. Lobbyists must now disclose this information.

Ethics is a cornerstone of our democracy. Our forefathers sacrificed so that we might have a better way of life. Those sacrifices came at a high cost, one which we are reminded of on Memorial Day. Georgia Watch will continue to advocate for more transparency and openness in government because we believe it is foundational, not optional. We also know that it is action, not apathy, that will mold our future. We are working hard on behalf of Georgians and we continue to ask you to stand beside us and support our efforts. We’re in this together. It is our state and our future.