State News

July 13, 2013

Limit on lobbying gifts doesn’t apply to all

Gov. Nathan Deal’s executive order seems simple: Employees in Georgia’s executive branch should not accept gifts worth more than $25, particularly from lobbyists and vendors.

In reality, the policy is more complicated. Lobbyists have spent more than $25 on executive branch employees more than 150 times through June, totaling nearly $17,000. The tally is not exact — incomplete or vague records can make it difficult to determine who benefits from lobbyists’ gifts. And some agencies will reimburse lobbyists for gifts.

Several issues complicate the rule limiting gifts. The governor doesn’t control every employee in the executive branch. Voters elect an attorney general and statewide officials to run the departments of agriculture, insurance and labor. Those elected officials set their own rules for their employees. While there is occasional debate, most legal authorities agree those employees are exempt from Deal’s order.

Of the 120,000 employees in the executive branch, about 50,000 fall outside the governor’s jurisdiction, according to Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Deal.

The loopholes will narrow when a new state law takes effect Jan. 1. It generally prohibits lobbyists from spending more than $75 on state officials, with some exceptions.

Until then, it’s up to executive branch leaders to decide whether to set rules on lobbyist spending. Some have not. Last month, Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens and two of his high-ranking regulators accepted $100-per-head dinners and, in one case, a round of golf from a lobbyist representing the insurance industry. One of Hudgens’ staffers brought his wife and two daughters to the meals.

Hudgens said he didn’t set rules on lobbyist gifts when he entered office in 2011. Lobbyists have made multiple expenditures on Hudgens, buying items ranging from $5 in newspapers to $245 in lodging at an industry conference.

Hudgens said he thinks the executive order applies not to his employees but to the people Deal appoints and whose paychecks have his signature.

Hudgens said he now requires his employees to pay their entertainment expenses when traveling to industry meetings. He said his department also will start complying with the new law further restricting lobbyist spending before it officially takes effect.

Members of the State Transportation Board are elected by regional groups of state lawmakers, not Deal, and they say they’re exempt from his order. Board member Dana Lemon last month asked a Georgia Power lobbyist for $220 in Atlanta Braves baseball tickets for herself and three family members, according to financial reports. The electric utility has business dealings with the board.

Lemon said in an interview that she doesn’t do anything state lawmakers don’t do, and no ticket would influence her vote.

“I think that part of the responsibility that we have in this particular position is building relations and working together and collaboration,” she said. “And this is just one way Georgia Power supports the board it does business with.”

Some have adopted stricter policies. For example, Attorney General Sam Olens decided in December to refuse gifts worth more than $25, said his spokeswoman, Lauren Kane. Olens makes exceptions for government institutions and nonprofits that don’t conduct business with the state. Department policy forbids his attorneys from accepting gifts related to their jobs. For items that are impractical to return, such as food, attorneys are encouraged to share or donate to food pantries.

A statewide budget crunch sometimes encourages even Deal’s employees to accept lobbyist or outside money. In June, Department of Juvenile Justice Assistant Deputy Commissioner Diana Aspinwall received a $1,500 reimbursement from the Pew Charitable Trusts to travel and give a presentation about a state overhaul of juvenile justice laws.

Deal’s order states that the government prefers when agencies pay for the travel expenses of their employees rather than relying on outside funds. But employees can accept reimbursements from outside groups if the travel relates to their jobs.

The Juvenile Justice Department’s general counsel, Tracy Masters, serves as its ethics officer and permitted Aspinwall to accept the reimbursements, Masters said in a written statement. The trip would not otherwise have been possible given the agency’s budget constraints, she said.

 

1
Text Only
State News
  • One charged in death of Dalton woman, another sought

    A Dalton woman found dead in Calhoun earlier this month is believed to have died of a drug overdose after two Calhoun residents abandoned her in a car behind the VFW on East Line Street, Lt. Tony Pyle with the Calhoun Police Department said Wednesday afternoon.

    June 18, 2014

  • Guard shot at FedEx center to undergo 14th surgery

    A security guard critically wounded when a gunman went on a rampage at a FedEx facility is scheduled to undergo his 14th operation Tuesday.

    May 27, 2014

  • Arson ruled out as cause of chemical plant fire

    Police say investigators have been able to rule out arson or foul play as the cause of a massive fire at a chemical plant outside Atlanta that spewed black smoke and flames visible for miles.

    May 27, 2014

  • Teen tied to shopping cart drowns in lake

    Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials say a teen has died after being tied to a shopping cart and pushed into Lake Allatoona.

    May 25, 2014

  • Underground tattoo artists frustrate officials

    The work of tattoo artists whose living rooms double as body art studios might come cheap, but experts say the unsterile -- and illegal -- work environments could leave clients in pain long after the initial sting of the needle subsides.

    May 25, 2014

  • No runoff lets Republicans focus on Rep. Barrow

    While Georgia Republicans have to wait until July to settle runoff races for the U.S. Senate and three open House seats, one of the biggest GOP victories in the primary elections last week went to Augusta businessman Rick W. Allen.

    May 25, 2014

  • Audit probes juvenile justice turnover rate

    A state audit cites low pay, long hours and management concerns as reasons for a relatively high turnover rate at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

    May 25, 2014

  • Atlanta schools ex-tech director to be sentenced

    After his relationship with the superintendent of Atlanta’s school system soured, a former technology director for the district set up a kickback scheme to pad his pockets before he left his job, according to court documents.

    May 24, 2014

  • Georgia veteran, 92, honored at surprise ceremony

    Family and friends surprised a 92-year-old World War II veteran from Georgia on Memorial Day by honoring him and presenting him with the World War II Victory Medal.

    May 24, 2014

  • Police: Massive chemical plant fire extinguished

    Authorities say a massive fire at a chemical plant outside Atlanta that spewed black smoke and flames visible for miles has been extinguished.

    May 24, 2014