A conflict is still a conflict

Coleman didn't vote for franchise bill, but questions remain

Two months ago, Creative Loafing reported that a powerful state legislator voted for a bill that would benefit franchise restaurants, including the Huddle House he owns in his hometown. He didn't.

What state Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, did do — despite his conflict of interest — was to sponsor the legislation (along with five of his colleagues) and to speak in favor of it on the House floor, before it passed, 95-59.

The bill would give franchise owners some new advantages over franchise companies. If the bill were to become law, for example, it would override certain terms of contracts between restaurant franchises and franchise companies, and would allow franchisees to default on franchise contracts for up to 90 days.

Last week, Coleman filed suit against Creative Loafing, this writer, the editor of Creative Loafing and its publisher. The lawsuit claims the article was false and injured Coleman's reputation.

The article did fail to tell part of the story. While Coleman was at the podium asking House members to support the bill, he said, "I have a conflict of interest. I'm not going to vote for this bill." And — contrary to what a House employee told us five days later — Coleman was recorded as abstaining from the vote.

But in focusing on one misstatement of fact, a deeper point may be lost: That a powerful lawmaker used his influence to thrust a conflict of interest into the lawmaking process.

As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Coleman is arguably the third most powerful member of the state House of Representatives. His sponsorship of legislation and his support of it — in floor speeches or informal lobbying — weighs far more heavily than does the single vote he casts alongside his 179 colleagues.

In early March, there were whispers outside the chambers and lobbies in the Capitol about a bill that was zooming through the House at breakneck speed.

HB 809, the Georgia Restaurant Franchise Relations Act, was introduced in the House on March 1, made it through the Industry Committee on March 5 and passed the House on March 7. It's rare for legislation to travel that fast unless it's supported by lawmakers with enough influence and power to drive it through quickly and quietly. Soon after the bill passed the House, CL found out that Coleman, one of the bill's sponsors, owned two Huddle House restaurants, one in Eastman and one in McCrae.

Coleman chose not to explain to us why he was pushing legislation that would tilt the playing field in favor of a business he owns and against franchise parent companies, like Huddle House Inc., which is based in Decatur. In fact, he didn't return any of our telephone calls over three weekdays. Finally, after we told his secretary we'd like an interview to discuss the controversial bill, we waited nearly an hour in his office, before he hurriedly walked out.

During the bill's debate on March 7, Coleman wasn't shy about arguing his point of view. The House Appropriations chairman played the role of advocate of small businessmen against the high and mighty corporation.

"When you walk in a Dairy Queen or Huddle House or some, in some cases a Waffle House or a Hardee's or some other franchise, chances are one out of three or four or five of those places are operated by an independent, an independent that gets up every morning, goes to work and tries to make a living," Coleman said. "And chances are a good portion of that person's income are sent to some corporate headquarters in the form of fees, franchise fees, royalties and everything else. And there are cases, there are cases, and I could name one in particular [but] I'm not. There are cases where some of these franchisers are unscrupulous."

He didn't mention that he owned two Huddle Houses — just stated at the end of his short speech that he had a "conflict of interest" and wouldn't be voting on this bill.

One political opponent, Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland, argued that the real "little people" in the debate were the back-bench legislators forced to choose between voting independently and voting against Coleman.

But the bill passed the House. In the Senate, where Coleman holds less sway, the bill stalled in committee before the annual session ended. Because it's already passed the House, however, the bill only needs Senate approval next year to be sent to the governor's desk.

So Coleman acknowledged a conflict of interest, but stood on the floor of the House and urged his colleagues to vote for the legislation. The only difference is that he didn't actually vote for it. In compliance with House rules, he abstained.

The real scandal is that Coleman did nothing wrong under House rules. The ethics rule allows a legislator to use every tool of the legislative process, including the influence of an appropriations chairmanship and speaking on the House floor, to promote legislation that benefits the legislator personally.

In fact, even votes are allowed — required, actually, except in a very narrow set of circumstances. House rules state that "every member within the chamber shall vote unless the member is immediately and particularly interested therein or unless the member is excused by the house."

The real shame in Georgia politics: Ethics rules are so few and far between that it's hard to tell conflicts of interest from a regular day at the office.??