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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lisa Borders, former Perdue spokesman among targets of ethics complaints

Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders and a former member of Gov. Sonny Perdue's staff have been named, along with a South Georgia construction firm, in state ethics complaints for unregistered lobbying at the Gold Dome.

Neill Herring, a longtime Sierra Club lobbyist, filed the complaints with the State Ethics Commission last week. (To view Herring's statement of facts, click here.) The grievances center around alleged unregistered lobbying for SB 200 and SR 309, two pieces of legislation that dealt with the testy issue of  "infrastructure development districts." The initiative passed both chambers in the General Assembly and was signed into law by Perdue in 2007.

Commonly called "private cities" by their critics, the districts allow developers to issue tax-exempt bonds and levy assessments on property owners to pay for roads, sewers, or even amenities like golf courses. The practice is legal and used in 17 other states. The districts often begin as greenfield projects in cash-strapped counties and offer developers an incentive to pursue a project. Environmentalists, however, say private cities are catalysts for sprawl and grant government powers to a private entity.  The Sierra Club has been at the front of the fight against the concept. Voters will be presented with a referendum on the general election ballot that asks whether such districts should be legal in Georgia.

According to Herring's complaint, Borders attended and was recognized by lawmakers at a 2007 legislative session committee hearing in which the legislation was discussed. Atlanta developer behemoth Cousins Properties, Borders' employer at the time, was a member of a private coalition supporting the controversial concept. Herring also says she stood with a registered lobbyist from Cousins outside the state House chamber while the chamber jawboned about the IDD legislation. When Borders was asked that day if she was pushing for the legislation, Herring says in his complaint the City Council president said she was "visiting friends at the Capitol."

Complaints were also filed against Derrick Dickey, a former Perdue spokesman whom Herring alleges did not register as a lobbyist during the session. Two employees of Dublin, Ga.-based Graham Brothers Construction Company, Ted and Claude Graham, were also named for allegedly attempting to influence the legislation without registering with the commission. The commission decided to dismiss a fourth complaint, filed against registered lobbyist Jay Walker.

"It is fascinating to me that people who want to be entrusted with the power to sell tax free bonds, as if they were a local government, and to level ad valorem taxes, also are unwilling to sign up as lobbyists for the legislation that will give them these powers, a registration which costs them nothing," Herring said in an e-mail.

In a phone interview yesterday, Borders called the allegations "baseless" and says the complaint seems to be part of a politically motivated effort by opponents of the ballot referendum to win publicity. She said she was at the Capitol to celebrate a successful end to a legislative session with her fellow lawmakers and did not attempt to influence the legislation. Dickey only learned of the complaint after he was contacted by CL and declined to comment until he learned more about the specifics of the filing. A message was left at Graham Brothers offices.

Rick Thompson of the State Ethics Commission says the complaints against Borders, Dickey and Graham Brothers will be heard at the agency's next meeting on Dec. 4th.

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