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A yawning political loophole

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POSTED: April 11, 2011 12:45 p.m.

The glaring exception in Georgia’s lobbyist disclosure requirements is not the kind of thing for which any state should want to be singled out. Yet Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she knows of no other state where that exception applies.
The gist of it is simple, the problem obvious: State law that requires lobbyists to disclose what they spend to influence lawmakers does not require those same lobbyists to report what they spend on members of those lawmakers’ staffs or other unelected bureaucrats.
Can’t get to the boss? No problem: Just wine, dine and entertain some of his or her folks and you might get the same results – and all off the books.
The question arose when attorney Douglas Chalmers, legal adviser to House Speaker David Ralston, asked the state Ethics Commission to look into reporting requirements for a lobbyist-paid junket to Europe last year involving Ralston, his family and some staffers. After examining the law, the commission announced Tuesday that the section concerning lobbyist disclosures doesn’t mention public employees, and thus lobbyists no longer have to report what they spend on lawmakers’ staffs and others in a position to influence policy.
Don’t blame the Ethics Commission for gaping holes in a badly conceived law. In fact, some members of the panel, including Vice Chairman Josh Belinfante, are urging the General Assembly to close the loophole in the waning days of the current session. Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, told the AJC that two Senate bills he is sponsoring, both related to elections, could be amended to tighten lobbyist disclosure requirements: “We need to fix this problem as quickly as we can.”
Lobbies representing various interest groups and causes don’t spend money on public officials, and certainly not on those officials’ staffs, just because they are lonely and generous and want to make new friends. They are doing it to influence government policy, as is their right.
But there are other rights involved here, too, beginning with the public’s right to know how policy is being made, who is making it, where the money is coming from and where it’s going.

 

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