State Ethics Laws Fail to Keep Pace with Reality
Lomonte, Frank, The Florida Times Union
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
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
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
(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. …