Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

State Ethics Laws Fail to Keep Pace with Reality

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

State Ethics Laws Fail to Keep Pace with Reality

Article excerpt

In a simpler time with a simpler economy, the whirl of inquiry

surrounding state Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson might never have

come to pass.

A generation ago, the Savannah legislator would have been

employed as a teacher, a doctor or a real-estate agent -- not as

a "consultant," the catch-all job description that seemingly

blankets half the work force of the '90s.

Because of how she makes her living, Johnson is under scrutiny

by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, whose agents are probing

how $77,000 from a state tourism grant found its way into her

company, CAA Consulting.

Even if no impropriety is found, the case highlights how

Georgia's decades-old ethics laws have failed to keep pace with

economic reality.

Elected officials must file annual reports disclosing only the

sketchiest of personal financial data, such as any ownership

interest greater than 20 percent in a corporation or piece of

real estate.

That law was intended to let the public verify whether a

politician was casting a self-serving vote for financial gain.

Unless the elected official's business interests are

self-explanatory, the threat of exposure is a hollow one.

Johnson could legitimately report only that she owned CAA

Consulting, which tells the voters nothing useful.

"The only way you can find out anything is if the person

actually wants you to know," said Melissa Metcalfe, an ethics

watchdog with Georgia Common Cause, who calls the current system

"patently corrupt."

(A separate law does require elected or appointed state leaders

to disclose whether they did business with the state, and on

that score, Johnson's reporting might be called into question.

Her most recent filings don't show any state business, despite

the money her consulting firm received, ostensibly for helping

market Georgia as a vacation spot.)

Out of 236 state House and Senate members, 29 describe their

job as "businessman" or "businesswoman" in public filings, as

Johnson did. Other lawmakers list the nebulous occupations of

"public affairs consultant" or "motivational speaker," which

puts them in the position of soliciting contracts from the

businesses they regulate. …

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