Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs) has figured out something many of his colleagues in the General Assembly seem unable to grasp: If you disagree with something I say, tell me so and give me your side of the story.
Wilkinson called after my column advocating limits on lobbying expenditures to say that he believes the current laws are working just fine. A member of the General Assembly since 2001, Wilkinson has served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee for the past eight. It is not the most fun job in politics. "Eight years as ethics chairman is like dog years," he cracks. "I feel like I have been at this for 56 years."
While he supports the state’s lack of limitations on lobby expenditures, he says he understands why many people in the state do not. It is the perception of wrongdoing, Wilkinson says, not the reality.
Wilkinson says most members of the General Assembly are good people trying to do a good job for us, but he admits that "a few members get the kind of publicity that taints the process and looks excessive to Georgians."
Wilkinson didn’t name names but I will. House Speaker David Ralston is the poster boy for tainting the process. His ill-advised "working trip" over the 2010 Thanksgiving holidays with his family, an aide and his wife to Germany with an unregistered lobbyist was extraordinarily bad judgment.
That one incident did as much to bring about a public outcry in Georgia for some kind of limitations on lobbying as anything in recent memory. Ralston may not have violated the letter of the law, but he certainly pooped all over the spirit of it.
The speaker has neither apologized for his bad judgment nor offered to reimburse for the expenses of his family and his aide’s wife. He seems to think if he ignores the incident, it will go away. Chalk that one up to wishful thinking.
In spite of Ralston’s actions, Wilkinson soldiers on in strongly defending the state’s current ethics laws. He says, " I challenged Common Cause three years ago to bring me the names of three legislators who had been ‘bought’ by lobbyists. They couldn’t do it. So I asked them for one name. They couldn’t do that, either. If someone can provide me a shred of evidence of wrongdoing, I will leap into action and I will do so with a vigor that would make the members of the Senate Watergate Committee blush."
He recounted the ultimate fate of previous House Speaker Glenn Richardson. Rumors had been swirling around his relationship with a female lobbyist. Richardson had maintained his innocence until his former wife went public. Immediately, Wilkinson said petitions were circulated in the House with enough signatures to force the speaker’s resignation. He resigned before they could be presented to him.
The Sandy Springs lawmaker says financial caps won’t work because some lobbyists would find a way around them and make the process harder to manage because the miscreants would be harder to catch. Instead, he encourages you to go to the Web site: media.ethics.ga.gov./search/Lobbyist and see for yourself what lobbyists are spending on legislators.
On the left side of the page you will find "Search Lobbyist." Under that, you will see "By Expenditures." Then type in on the blank line "Name of Public Official" and Voila! There it is. You can see who is wining and dining your local representative and senator and at what expense. I urge you to make yourself a frequent visitor to the site and let me know what you think.
I took a peek at David Ralston numbers. The speaker was the beneficiary of $813.97 worth of goodies in January and $1,005.21 in February. I look forward to checking regularly on Ralston’s activities and passing that information along to you. Remember, this is what he asked us to do. Let’s not disappoint him.
Can you trust the integrity of the process? Wilkinson says if someone wants to try and game the system, it will come at a high cost. "Fines can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars," he says, "and the attorney general will prosecute the violators."
Give Rep. Joe Wilkinson high marks for wanting to explain his side of the issue to you. He may or may not have changed your mind but he at least made the effort to do so. That’s more than I can say for most of his friends under the Gold Dome.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.