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Ethics enforcement on state level is a sad farce 

Governor and lawmakers combine efforts to stifle ethics watchdogs

You've heard about what happens when the foxes guard the henhouse? How about when the foxes cut the henhouse's funding while increasing its expenses?

OK, perhaps that metaphor's a bit strained, but no more than the public's credulity at how their governors and state lawmakers have labored to undermine the effectiveness of the State Ethics Commission and brush aside meaningful attempts to strengthen ethics laws.

Keep in mind, this is not a partisan complaint. Democrats were in charge for generations and showed little appetite for policing their own. When Republicans took over, they loudly promised ethics reform and increased government transparency. But the only thing that's been transparent has been their ham-handed efforts to thwart ethics watchdogs.

Arguably, Gov. Nathan Deal has been even more clumsy and obvious in this regard than his ethics-averse predecessor.

Last week, it came out that Deal's appointed chairman of the State Ethics Commission, er, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — the Legislature changed the agency's name last year to help obscure its mission — had told the agency's director, Stacey Kalberman, that he was cutting her salary by a third and was getting rid of her chief investigator. This was after Kalberman had asked the chairman, one Patrick Millsaps, to approve subpoena requests to enable the agency to investigate complaints that the Deal campaign may have misused campaign funds and accepted contributions that exceeded legal limits.

A day after Kalberman reportedly stormed out of the office, the chairman sent her an email saying her apparent resignation had been accepted — even though she later said she hadn't quit.

With the unsigned subpoena requests still sitting on his desk, Millsaps spent the next few days unconvincingly claiming that his decision to slash Kalberman's pay and ax her assistant hadn't been part of an effort to derail the Deal investigation. Deal has already made clear he doesn't appreciate scrutiny, as when he locked a TV news crew out of a bill-signing photo op in May in retaliation for an investigative piece revealing that Deal's gubernatorial campaign had quietly hired his daughter-in-law as a fundraiser.

Millsaps said the payroll cuts were the result of necessary budget belt-tightening. The agency has seen its budget trimmed in recent years, along with most state departments. And, this year, the Legislature added more costly red tape, requiring the Commission to start sending notices to scofflaw lawmakers by certified mail in 2012 rather than by regular post. And though the agency gets to keep a portion of the fines it levies, it has no power to collect that money. At the end of 2010, the AJC reported earlier this year, more than 2,000 current and former officials had $300,000 in unpaid fines.

So, you see, weakening ethics enforcement has been a team effort. Our only real hope for transparency is for a judge to order the state to properly fund and staff an independent ethics commission. Anyone out there feel like filing a lawsuit?

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