Monday, July 21, 2014

Ethics memo scandal doesn't make cut for Georgia Senate newsletters?

Posted By on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 4:51 PM

There were many news stories throughout Georgia last week. But it's safe to say that no headlines were more prominent than the ones about a 2012 memo from Georgia's top ethics official Holly LaBerge that accused the governor’s office of pressuring her to settle ethics complaints related to his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Yet the story was missing from the daily newsletters blasted out to Georgia state senators, causing some Democrats to raise questions over the matter.

Every weekday morning, the Senate Press Office, a nonpartisan office responsible for writing press releases and handling media requests, sends out an internal newsletter called “Daily Clippings” to state senators and their staffers. For many Gold Dome employees, the roundup offers a way to keep tabs on what’s going on across the state with different policy matters.

However, the LaBerge memo was noticeably absent from last week's Senate newsletters. The lack of coverage has led some Gold Dome politicians, including Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, to voice their concerns about the nonpartisan office.

“I find it unusual and disconcerting that a major story like that would be left out,” Henson tells CL. “You have to wonder [whether] there’s some political filter there."

Ethics-related stories aren’t always kept out of the newsletter, Henson says. In many cases, he says the roundup tends to be focused on positive news stories about things like job creation or bill passages. He recalls that recent "Daily Clippings" headlines included both an effort by Common Cause Georgia to force LaBerge’s resignation as well as alleged credit card misuse by DeKalb County commissioners.

Jennifer Yarber, director of the Senate Press Office, says that her staff typically sends out legislative-related stories, particularly ones that are pertinent to state senators, instead of headlines focused on activities outside their roles as elected officials. Yarber, who used to handle the roundup, says that a new Senate Press Office employee has taken over that responsibility and is still learning the ins and outs of her job. But the recent concerns could prompt the office to take a closer look at how the newsletter is compiled, she says.

“We're a part of the Georgia General Assembly,” Yarber tells CL. "But we don't touch anything campaign related. We only focus on the work they do in the Senate. … it's a good time to go back and review our process.”

The Senate Press office is also responsible for setting up press conferences for senators, writing speeches, and monitoring committees during the legislative session. Because the General Assembly is Republican-controlled, some Democratic lawmakers and staffers have been left to wonder whether they’re getting the same treatment as their GOP colleagues, given what they think could be a partisan bias with the newsletter contents.

"They've had partisan problems before," one staffer, who asked to be kept anonymous, tells CL. “But I would not be surprised if someone has put their clips on lockdown [regarding] the ethics stuff. It's just the nature of the capitol."

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