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Fight for ethics reform isn't new

Posted: June 13, 2012 - 12:06am

This is one of those times in Georgia politics when people realize that the legislative process has gotten a little off track and needs to be straightened out.

Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for ethics reform, particularly that loophole in state law that allows lobbyists to spend as much as they want to entertain lawmakers. This has resulted in such spectacles as a Speaker of the House taking his family on a $17,000 junket to Europe with the expenses paid by a lobbyist.

There was a similar move for ethics reform in the General Assembly 20 years ago that ended successfully when legislators passed a law that for the first time required lobbyists to register and disclose what they spent in the course of their business.

The same arguments we hear today from veteran legislators – “You can’t buy my vote for the price of a meal!” – were the same arguments made in 1992 against that ethics bill.

The lawmaker at the center of that storm was McCracken Poston, a young attorney from Northwest Georgia who defied one of the most powerful men in state politics, House Speaker Tom Murphy, to get his bill passed.

Poston left the Legislature more than 15 years ago but still lives in Ringgold, where he practices criminal law and serves as a juvenile court judge.

He agrees that the current House speaker, David Ralston, is making the same mistake that Murphy did 20 years ago in trying to block the passage of ethics reform legislation. He does not, however, depict the opposition to reform as necessarily evil or corrupt.

“In my day with Speaker Murphy, it was not a battle of good versus evil,” Poston said. “We do a disservice when we make this into a good versus evil issue. Tom Murphy, individually, was a very ethical person. He would be very offended at the thought that someone was trying to buy him.”

Poston said that Murphy, like Ralston, understood that lobbyists helped the House leadership maintain control over the 180 individuals who make up that chamber through the money spent to entertain legislators.

“I realized I was challenging a very institutionalized lever he could use on committee chairmen,” Poston recalled. “By knowing which chairmen liked to eat at the Capitol City Club, and which ones liked to play golf, he could keep control of the place a lot better.”

“The lobbyists were the lever,” Poston said. “He could use lobbyists to persuade and pressure House members. Otherwise, you had to actually get down and argue the merits of the issue – that’s hard to do with 180 people. That is going to make his job of leadership a lot harder.”

Poston persevered against Murphy’s opposition and secured passage of a bill that required lobbyists to start revealing themselves to the public through the registration and disclosure process. When he undertook that struggle 20 years ago, Georgia was one of only two states that did not require lobbyists to disclose the money they spent on lawmakers.

Legislators like Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and outgoing Rep. Tommy Smith, R-Nicholls, are the ones who sponsored the latest round of ethics bills. They have tried to bring lobbyists under tighter control by putting a cap of $100, or some similar limitation, on what they can spend on each legislator.

Today, Georgia is one of only three states that does not place any limitation on the amount of money that lobbyists can spend to influence the passage of legislation.

Poston speaks kindly of Ralston, though he disagrees with him on the need for ethics reform.

“He’s a nice guy, he’s a North Georgian,” Poston said. “I like David, always have. But we all get caught in that trap. I think we just have to make the speaker’s job harder.

“It would be unheard of for a lawyer to show up in court with a gift for the judge that is hearing his case,” Poston noted. “It’s a violation of the judicial canon of ethics. It’s a criminal offense, in some circumstances.

“Why should one branch of government be allowed to do that?” he asked. “It makes no sense. I am a true believer that we have to change.”

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)

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