Tuesday, April 7, 2009

'Bubba' McDonald may not be out of ethics woods yet

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2009 at 11:55 AM

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Georgia's newest Public Service Commissioner, Lauren McDonald — better known to his longtime fans and followers as “Bubba” — is already facing up to $25,000 in fines by the State Ethics Commission related to shoddy record-keeping during his losing 2002 campaign to keep his seat on the PSC.

Now, former AJC investigative editor Jim Walls reports on his Atlanta Unfiltered blog that McDonald may also have some problems with his filings during last year's PSC race to regain his old seat, specifically a $15,000 campaign loan of uncertain origin.

What makes all of this more than usually ironic is that McDonald had been working behind the scenes to change the rules for how the PSC chairmanship is determined, presumably so Bubba could ascend to that position. Currently, the five commissioner take turns serving as chairman, based on a regular annual rotation.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

McDonald's effort fell through this year, but could be revived next January. Here's what was afoot: State Rep. Don Parsons, a back-bench Republican from Cobb, sponsored a bill that, in its original form, would have eliminated home districts for PSC members. (You'll recall that Commissioner Bobby Baker last year faced a lawsuit alleging that he was violating district rules by claiming a residence outside Athens while really living in an Atlanta apartment. Baker beat the rap on the simple logic that, because the PSC is a full-time job, he has to stay in Atlanta during the week, but returns home on weekends.)

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, didn't feel comfortable changing the district rules without more study and debate, but when Parsons instead moved to have the PSC chairman elected by his fellow commissioners, Scott passed the bill out of committee.

Scott later said no one had explained why it was necessary to change the way the PSC chairman is selected, but added, "I don't know of any board that doesn't choose its own chairman."

Scott is correct; most board chairman are elected. Even the PSC chairman had been elected internally until the early '90s, when the members couldn't reach an agreement on a chairman — they all wanted to do it. But arguably even more than legislators, PSC members are tempted with offers of freebies and junkets. Having a rotating chairmanship is a reasonable safeguard against becoming too cozy with the industries they regulate.

Baker subsequently confirmed that Bubba was behind Parson's attempt to change the chairman process.

"It's intended to deny the people of Georgia the benefit of the experience of the five elected commissioners," Baker said.

More specifically, the bill seemed aimed at installing McDonald in the chairman's seat — where he would have the power to appoint committee chairmen — for a three-year term. Baker, considered the sole remaining consumer advocate on the PSC, is scheduled to rotate in as chairman in 2011.

The bill never came up for a floor vote in the Senate. Rumor had it that, if it had, a certain Republican senator planned to offer an amendment that anyone found guilty of an ethics violation within the past year would be ineligible to serve as chairman. Brilliant.

At any rate, we'll keep you posted on any further ethics issues regarding our beloved Bubba.

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