Normally Tepid Race Heating Up; Is It Ethics, or Just Politics?

Article excerpt

Byline: Walter C. Jones, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- The sparks flying in this year's race for Georgia's attorney general could kindle a wildfire by November, fueled by a criminal investigation, accusations of ethical breaches and hardball politics.

Republican challenger Shannon Goessling is applying her skills as a former prosecutor to try to wear down Attorney General Thurbert Baker with a series of accusations and calls for a grand jury investigation of him.

Baker's staffers say his record is spotless and that Goessling's claims are just politics.

A race for a state department head that falls in the middle of the ballot normally attracts little attention from voters or donors. But Goessling, a first-time candidate who surprised her own party's leaders by even entering the race, is hoping Baker will be caught off guard.

Though she has raised only $60,000 in campaign contributions to his $1.2 million, she has been aggressive in trying to topple the Democrat who already was fielding questions about ethics.

Goessling says Republican polls show her essentially even with Baker, who has held the office since his appointment in 1997 and election the next year. Baker staff members say their polls show the incumbent is far ahead.

Baker's troubles began earlier in the year during the prosecution of state Sen. Van Streat, D-Nicholls. Streat is accused of trying to influence the Pardons and Parole Board on behalf of an inmate in exchange for campaign contributions.

Streat's attorney succeeded in getting the judge in the case to rule that one of the senior lawyers on the attorney general's staff had misled Streat and, because of his active role in the investigation, no longer could participate in the trial except as a witness.

Then Streat's defense accused Baker of the same crime for which the senator is being tried. So Gov. Roy Barnes pressured Baker to remove himself from participation in the case, too. Barnes appointed a special prosecutor, Democratic District Attorney Pete Skandalakis of the Coweta Judicial Circuit, to look into the matter.

Two weeks ago, Skandalakis announced that his investigation revealed that Baker had done nothing wrong. But he also said a Baker aide would be charged.

Sam Tillman, a veteran Democratic operative whom Baker hired as a community liaison, had ordered the destruction of a document showing the aide tried to influence the Parole Board on behalf of an inmate. …