If you’re looking for examples of political corruption in our great state, you can find them at the capitol or at many county courthouses without a lot of effort.
Turn your eyes to Gwinnett County, where a former county commissioner is headed to federal prison after pleading guilty to taking a bribe from a developer. Another former Gwinnett commissioner has been indicted on charges he was bribed by a local developer in a county property transaction.
At the legislative level, an influential state senator, Don Balfour, was sanctioned by his own chamber’s ethics committee for seeking state expense reimbursements for days when he was out of town being entertained by lobbyists. The senator paid a $5,000 fine to settle the ethics case but is still under investigation by the GBI.
The state Senate passed a bill that would give lucrative tax breaks to developers of tourist attractions. That tax break was adopted after it was slipped surreptitiously into another bill – which meant that several senators were not even aware they were voting to pass a tax break. When the tax bill was being debated on the House floor, Rep. Mark Hatfield (R-Waycross) described it as “legalized extortion.”
In the judicial branch, there have been numerous judges who were forced to resign from the bench in the middle of investigations by the Judicial Qualifications Commission into allegations that they behaved unethically or corruptly.
It’s no wonder that Georgians are tired of this. That disapproval was expressed eloquently last July when voters rejected a one-cent sales tax to build and maintain highways. Voters also passed, by large margins, straw vote issues calling for limitations on the gifts that lobbyists can give to legislators.
Back in the 1980s, an ambitious attorney general named Mike Bowers called for the creation of statewide grand juries or special grand juries to investigate allegations of corruption by elected officials.
He proposed this review panel to go after cases that regular grand juries refused to touch because the allegations involved local politicians or businessmen.
That proposal never gained traction with the Democratic majority that controlled the Legislature at the time. I have not heard it discussed during the past decade when Republicans controlled all the levers of state government.
Thankfully, that old idea is being dusted off for another discussion in the upcoming legislative session.
A proposed constitutional amendment has been pre-filed that would authorize the attorney general to ask the Georgia Supreme Court to empanel one of these special grand juries.
This grand jury would have the power to investigate and issue indictments for any crime “involving corruption in the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the state, any political subdivision or municipality of the state, or any authority or instrumentality of the state, a political subdivision, or municipality.”
That would cover just about all areas of state and local government.
The constitutional amendment was introduced by Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), who has emerged as one of the few lawmakers willing to tackle the sensitive issues of governmental ethics and political corruption.
No one in the legislative leadership has signed on to this measure as a co-sponsor. It would have to receive a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives before it could be placed on the 2014 general election ballot for consideration by the voters. There is not much of a chance it will be passed.
Even with those odds against it, the proposal for a statewide grand jury is a good idea that at least deserves the support of the current attorney general. Sam Olens, the ball is in your court.
Mike Bowers was correct all those years ago. The General Assembly needs to set up a special grand jury that would take a serious look at suspicious political behavior, starting at the state level and working its way on down. There is as much of a need now as there was then.
It might even persuade the voters to start trusting government again.