After tumultuous year, still more changes ahead for Georgia's ethics agency

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ATLANTA — After a stinging audit and a staffing overhaul, the state ethics commission looks to a new year that could bring even more significant changes.

It's been a tumultuous time at the state ethics commission, which has been mired in recent years by a number of lawsuits filed by former employees, personnel issues and allegations of outside influence with questions raised about its ability to ensure candidates, campaign committees, lobbyists and others are disclosing their financial activities as required by law.

Meanwhile, the commission has had 216 open complaints that have been pending an average of three years and has failed to consider a single complaint for a year and a half amid an employee turnover rate of 46 percent in the last two years.

That was all noted in an October audit conducted by the state that found the commission was not achieving its mission and noted commissioners had not provided adequate oversight of key personnel who, in turn, failed to ensure employees operated effectively. The audit describes the agency as an "unprofessional work environment" that was unable to ensure those required to file disclosures and campaign finance reports actually did so, that such filings were reviewed for accuracy and that cases were handled in a timely, consistent and thorough manner.

The agency's executive secretary and the staff attorney were both terminated this year, and commissioners have been working to rebuild the staff. The audit issued 42 recommendations, along with issues state lawmakers might consider to improve the effectiveness and independence of the commission. Key recommendations focused on encouraging agency personnel to create tracking systems to identify and notify late filers and to monitor the progress of active investigations into complaints.

Commission Chair Hillary Stringfellow told state auditors, according to the audit, the staff had already begun addressing the case backlog and was "committed to addressing each of the concerns raised in the audit." Stringfellow also told auditors staff has begun to develop a case tracking system and developing criteria to ensure comparable cases are treated similarly in terms of fees and fines.

At a minimum, the audit found the "underlying cause of the commission's performance issues is its dysfunctional organizational culture." And that's at the heart of a proposal by Gov. Nathan Deal to overhaul the structure of the commission. Deal's proposal was part of his bid for re-election this year, and there are strong indications he plans to push the issue during next year's legislative session.

"There will be legislation," Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said recently, adding key reforms would be adding appointments by the judiciary and not just the executive and legislative branches along with mandating any case involving a member of one branch of government would be heard only by commissioners appointed by the other two branches. "This removes the appearance of conflict of interest."

Under Deal's initial proposal, which will likely evolve, the commission would be expanded from five members to 12 with each branch of government appointing four members. The plan was announced in April, shortly after a civil jury found in favor of a former commission employee who claimed retaliation for investigating the governor's 2010 campaign filings. The state subsequently settled with three other former commission employees, who had also claimed retaliation.

William Perry, leader of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, called the governor's proposal "a baby step in the right direction" and said he'd like to see the agency fall under the judiciary with members of the Georgia Supreme Court responsible for appointing all commissioners. Perry added the audit reinforced much of the concerns his group had raised and underscored how important it will be for the agency, which has an annual budget this year of $1.35 million, to have an executive secretary with significant management experience and receive the funding necessary from the General Assembly to meet its responsibilities.

"When they are operating at two-thirds of the budget than they used to plus a larger workload, that really demonstrates how underfunded they are," Perry said, adding lawmakers are well aware of the agency's lack of funds and have not taken action. "They look at the ethics commission like the enemy and not the protector of their reputations, which it should be."


Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina .

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