George Washington Plunkitt was born too soon.
For those who may not be familiar with the name, Plunkitt was a New York state senator of the 19th century who famously coined the phrase “honest graft” to describe how he became rich from politics.
Honest graft, as Plunkitt explained it, occurred when a politician’s personal interests happened to coincide with his constituents’ interests. For example, Plunkitt would purchase a tract of land in an area where a public project, such as a park, was going to be developed. He would then sell his property, which would be needed to complete the public project, at an inflated price.
“They couldn’t make the park complete without Plunkitt’s swamp, and they had to pay a good price for it,” Plunkitt would say. “Anything dishonest in that?”
Plunkitt was born in 1842 and benefited from his association with the Democratic Party’s Tammany Hall machine. If he had only been born here in 1962 or 1972, he would have really prospered in Georgia’s current political environment.
We’ve seen Gwinnett County officials get involved in suspicious land deals like Plunkitt’s — and also get indicted by local and federal grand juries.
We’ve seen elected officials get free trips to Europe for themselves and their family members that are provided by generous lobbyists willing to pay out $17,000 for the junket.
We’ve seen governors sign bills that gave themselves a tax break on their property worth an estimated $100,000.
Although much attention is being paid to the dollars that lobbyists spend to entertain legislators, the really big money in Georgia politics comes in the form of campaign contributions, many of them also made by lobbyists.
Let’s look at state Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville), an executive with the Waffle House restaurant chain, and Stan Wise, a well-fed member of the Public Service Commission.
Balfour is the freebie king among Georgia legislators. Lobbyists have treated him to so many baseball games, football games, and golf tournaments over the years that Balfour has acquired the nickname “Donnie Ballgame” from capitol reporters.
The lobbyist gifts are but a drop in the bucket, however, when compared to the campaign contributions Balfour has amassed.
Balfour’s latest disclosure report reveals that, as of March 31, he had received $993,108 in contributions. A lot of that money came from fundraisers attended by capitol lobbyists. We can safely assume that in the weeks since March 31, Balfour’s contribution total has surpassed $1 million.
As a PSC member, Wise regulates utilities such as Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light. When there is an issue before the PSC where commissioners must choose between the interests of the utilities and the interests of consumers, Wise nearly always votes for Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas, and against the consumers.
This should not be a surprise. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted an analysis of Wise’s campaign contributions over the last few election cycles, it found that he got 91 percent of his contributions either from people who work for companies regulated by the PSC or whose law firm represents a PSC-regulated company. Wise’s son also works for a law firm that represents Georgia Power.
Balfour and Wise at least can argue that they have opposition this year and will need the money for their campaigns.
House Speaker David Ralston, the beneficiary of that $17,000 trip to Europe, would have a harder time making that argument. His last disclosure report showed he has received nearly $532,000 in contributions and still has $318,000 in the bank. Ralston is unopposed for re-election.
The last report filed by Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth) disclosed $936,000 in contributions, with $515,000 still resting in his campaign bank account. Shafer has another $142,634 that he raised during a short-lived campaign for lieutenant governor in 2010. He is unopposed this year.
Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) has amassed $340,000 in contributions and still has $183,000 cash on hand. He has no opposition this year.
The scandal of Georgia politics isn’t that the huge amounts of money given to Balfour, Wise and their colleagues is illegal. The scandal is that this financial gusher is allowed under current state law.
That fact may be disturbing to many voters, but I have a feeling George Washington Plunkitt would feel right at home with it.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)