Cover Story: 2002 Golden Sleaze Awards

Legislators were willing to sell their favors — then they thought about November

It was Jan. 14, the very first day of the session. Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, was at his desk in the Senate chambers answering questions about predatory lending legislation for a Channel 11 reporter.

While the cameraman filmed, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor waltzed up to Fort, shook his hand and schmoozed him up for no other apparent reason than to get on television.

The source of such camera greed can be found in these two words: election year. For the politicians fighting to keep their office, or to climb to a higher one, a few seconds on television are priceless.

While every political seat is sacred ground to be defended — or conquered — none is more prized than congressional, and there the fight for exposure was most hotly fought.

Sen. Greg Hecht, D-Morrow, a candidate for the 13th Congressional District, got some airtime for a redundant airport security bill that duplicated federal laws that already exist. One of Hecht’s opponents for Congress, Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta, made the news for introducing a natural gas deregulation bill.

And Rep. Bob Irvin, R-Atlanta, who’s taking on U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss for the Republican bid against Sen. Max Cleland, got plenty of mileage out of his idea to hold hearings to blast the city of Atlanta’s budget problems — without even being gracious enough to invite Mayor Shirley Franklin.

With no blitzkrieg maneuver to change the state flag, or to create some new, uber-government agency, what we saw instead was a bunch of politicians yucking it up for the media by making it look like they’re saving the world. Hey, that’s almost as much hard work as actually solving real problems.

The folks who really pounded the hallways this session were bank lobbyists.

They went all out to fight legislation that ultimately reined in the state’s predatory lenders. And the bankers had plenty of help in the form of pros willing to sell themselves. House Speaker Tom Murphy went the distance to help the bank lobby, and in doing so he clashed head-on with Gov. Roy Barnes, who pushed the legislation. The bill, which passed on the session’s last day, may actually stop the sleaziest of lenders from hoodwinking Georgians out of their homes.

Piles of decomposing bodies in Noble County did a good job of distracting voters from the fact that new natural gas legislation won’t do a damn thing to improve gas prices. Also, despite promises of passing a lean, bare-bones budget, lawmakers padded their districts’ pockets with handfuls of cash-dripping pork like they do every year.

For those reasons and the ones below, we’re obligated to shine the blinding light of public humiliation on those lawmakers bent on abusing the state and its people for their own twisted purposes. Ladies and gentlemen, claim your Golden Sleaze Awards.

And for the first time, Creative Loafing is separating out a whole set of awards for those lawmakers who actually did some good for the state.

The “About Damn Time Award,” to the U.S. Department of Justice and three federal judges for taking way too long to decide whether to reject the state Senate map for violating the Voting Rights Act.

A regular session of the General Assembly can only last 40 days by law, so lawmakers had to drag the session out with recesses until the feds sent the state Senate map back for tweaking. That cost taxpayers more money, and created such a long and boring session that even interns and pages bitched, “Gosh, lawmaking isn’t near as exciting here as it is on C-Span.”

The “Geraldo Rivera Award for Excellence in Journalism,” to Atlanta Journal-Constitution Public Editor Mike King, for raising the most-pressing question of our time in a column two weeks ago: Should the AJC cover the state Legislature?

Sometimes, he said, it’s hard to squeeze something relevant out of a dried-up session. Maybe King is right to raise the question. Maybe we should just stand back and let legislators indulge in a gluttonous spending free-for-all. It’s only our money they’re throwing around.

King — who was the daily’s metro editor when it was blasted by a national journalism publication for its lack of legislative coverage — summed up his ramble by saying the General Assembly “has become a yearly social club dominated by an executive branch that greases the budget process with pork where necessary and lets loose important policy only when a small group of its leadership says it’s OK to do so.” What a great story idea. Thanks for the tip.

The “Exxon Valdez Friend of the Environment Award,” to Rep. Ralph Twiggs, D-Hiawassee.

Aw, yeah man, the 282 cc single-cylinder, four-stroke engine on a red-hot four-wheeler sure hauls ass — ain’t nothing like it. And it gets you closer to nature. Don’t it? So close in fact, that all terrain vehicles have shredded the Chattahoochee National Forest, doing more than $1 million worth of damage.

Twiggs pushed a bill that would have made it easier for cowboy ATV drivers to wreak their havoc by leaving to those noble mountain county commissioners the decision of which roads four- and three-wheelers are allowed on. Never mind whether the vehicles are even street legal.

The “Wish You Were Here Instead of About To Get Your Ass Thrown In Jail Award,” to Sen. Van Streat, D-Nicholls, for a couple things. First, he was indicted for accepting $4,500 in campaign contributions to arrange for a convicted murderer to be moved to a lower security prison. Then, he refused to give up his seat, so there was no special election to replace him. The Senate kicked him out anyway, leaving a vacancy.

The “Politician’s Politicians Award for Gratuitous Tax Cuts,” to Gov. Roy Barnes, for the sales-tax holiday, which makes for real big headlines but didn’t do squat to boost the economy or to help taxpayers. Republican lawmakers had pushed the sales-tax holiday for three years, but Barnes swiped the idea so that Georgia shoppers would thank him personally for their paltry discounts. Must be an election year.

The “Toxic Slime Award,” to Waste Management Inc., the only company that tried to stop a bill that would raise money to help pay for the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

There are 500 sites in Georgia on the state Environmental Protection Division’s list of sites that pose a risk to public health. Somebody needs to clean that mess up, so the General Assembly raised waste-handling fees to generate money for the state Superfund that pays the tab. But Waste Management Inc. fought it every step of the way. Even the Georgia Chamber of Commerce turned its back on Waste Management, the same company that runs the lovely and effervescent Live Oak landfill in south DeKalb County.

The “Dorothy Pelote Award for Entertaining Lawmaking,” to Rep. Dorothy Pelote, D-Savannah. Last year she made headlines for revealing that she had a vision about the disappearance of Chandra Levy. This year she made Georgians proud once again for pushing legislation that designated grits as the official processed food of Georgia. And she came close to introducing a bill that would make it a crime for anyone to answer the door naked. She says she won’t be back next year, but she just might be back in, um, spirit.

The “Yum, Pollution Tastes Great Award,” to Rep. Garland Pinholster, R-Ball Ground, for trying to outlaw anonymous whistleblower tips to the state Environmental Protection Division.

Pinholster wanted to require EPD to turn over the name, phone number and address of anyone who phones in a chemical spill or illegal dumping to the accused perpetrator before an investigation could begin. The good news is Pinholster’s political clout amounts to jack. The bill passed the House but got stuck in the Senate Rules Committee.

The “Evil Empire Award,” to lawmakers and lobbyists who did everything they could to allow sub-prime, predatory lenders to continue exploiting and manipulating Georgians.

Rep. Warren Massey, R-Winder, was the financial industry’s best friend. He offered an amendment that stripped the bill of its limits on kickbacks lenders give to mortgage brokers.

B.J. Van Gundy, lobbyist for the Mortgage Brokers Association of Georgia, was the guy who fought the legislation every step of the way.

Joe Brannen and the organization he lobbies for, the Georgia Bankers Association. These guys fought predatory lending legislation during the 2000 and 2001 legislative session. When Barnes finally got behind the bill, they realized they’d better switch teams and play like nice guys. Sorry. Too little, way too late.

Wachovia/First Union, SunTrust, Citigroup and Bank of America all had lobbyists working lawmakers to weaken the bill. They also all own subsidiaries that give sub-prime loans or they’ve recently sold subsidiaries that gave sub-prime loans and still profit from those loans.

House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, was right there with Massey, trying to kill or maim the bill.

The “Dorothy Pelote Impersonator Award” to Rep. Kathy Cox, R-Peachtree City, for pushing a bill that would make it illegal to buy and sell urine.

Cox was trying to make it harder for pot smokers and Rep. Douglas Dean, D-Atlanta (who was busted last year with cocaine), to pass drug tests. (One way to do that, kiddies, is to substitute the urine of somebody who doesn’t do drugs for your own).

The “Van Streat Award for Creative Campaign Money Solicitations,” to Barnes. If you build it, they will come bearing campaign contributions — that seems to be the philosophy Barnes has adopted for election fund raising. It’s no coincidence that a good portion of his $10 million war chest came from the same folks who’ll profit from that reprehensible gash of asphalt, the Northern Arc. Is it an election year or something?

The “Enron Corporate Citizen Award,” to railroad companies, for opposing a bill that would make it easier for school bus drivers and ambulance drivers to get over rail crossings on rural roads. During a debate on the bill, House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, said three types of people are “horrible” to deal with. First, he said, there are federal employees, then there are Postal Service employees, but the worst are railroad employees. A resolution (HR 1080) that declared CSX Railroad derelict in maintaining its properties and said the company’s actions are an affront to the state failed to pass. But it did express growing exasperation with the giant companies that still seem to think they’re the robber barons of the 19th century.

The “Bigotry Merit Badge Award,” to Sen. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, for his kindness, sensitivity, and dare we say it, deep respect for all humanity, when he bashed Catholic priests and homosexuals to push his “Fairness to Scouting Act,” a bill that would outlaw schools and governments from banning Boy Scout groups from using their spaces for meetings. Gingrey said his bill was similar to protecting altar boys from “child molestation by pedophile homosexual priests.”

Wait, it gets better. He also said the Catholic priests who molest children are “all definitely gay” and homosexuals are “more likely to molest children than heterosexuals.”

In his heartwarming conclusion, Gingrey reached out to Log Cabin Republicans when he said, “I’m no homophobic or gay basher. ... Homosexuality leads in many cases to a lifetime of physical and emotional turmoil and personal disaster.”

Must be some of that compassionate conservatism we’ve been hearing about. Fortunately, Gingrey’s bill was consigned to the dump.

The “Van Streat Award for Ethical Contributions to Lawmaking,” to Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta, for failing to disclose that some of the businesses he owns do business with the state. Walker was fined $8,500 by the State Ethics Commission for that. Another investigation into CresTech, a company run by Walker’s son that provides collect calling in Georgia prisons, led nowhere. But the commission is investigating Walker’s links to other corporations that get state money.

The “Trump Award,” to Georgia Power, for trying to take over the natural gas market by pushing a bill that would name the electric utility the only gas provider for low-income customers.

The “I Can Talk Just Like the President Awards” are shared by these silver-tongued legislators, who proved that actual lawmaking is just a warm up for the campaign trail.

Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus. You’d think that after being chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for more than a decade, Hooks would be familiar with the state’s accountants. Not so. During a budget hearing, he called the big-time accounting firm Doolittle and Torch. It’s actually Deloitte & Touche.

Afterward, David Goldberg, who was a reporter with the AJC at the time, asked Hooks about the mispronunciation. Hooks flipped through his speech, pointed at the name and said, “Well, that’s what it looks like to me.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, when asked about the technology used in new voting machines the Secretary of State’s office will acquire, replied, “At the very least, they’ll be electronic and they may be more sophisticated than that.”

Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling. In the midst of a tedious and straight-up boring budget debate, Brush brightened everyone’s day by doing what he’s come to be known for: saying really weird, stupid stuff. To criticize the governor’s massive bonding project, he complained about Barnes’ plan selling 20-year bonds to pay for maintenance of state buildings. “Twenty years? That’s a long time. I don’t know of any caulking that lasts 20 years.”

And during debates on a bill that would allow electronic billboards to change every six seconds instead of every 10 seconds, Brush actually attacked the nice ladies in the Garden Club of Georgia, because they opposed the legislation. “If they’re concerned about their garden clubs, then I say go get a garden somewhere.”

The Good Government Awards
The “It’s Good to be King Award,” to Gov. Roy Barnes. We’ve been pretty hard on Barnes in the past, but the guy isn’t all bad. In fact, he’s done a lot more good than most governors and deserves his props. When the bankers got uppity and tried to kill the predatory lending legislation, Barnes pushed back and got the bill through on the last day. His natural gas deregulation bill will help the poorest of Georgians keep their gas turned on, and just in time — natural gas prices are on the rise again nationwide. Barnes’ critics may not like the heavy-handed way he operates. But, as he says, he gets things done.

The “Bridge Builder Award,” to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. Franklin’s visits to the Gold Dome this year did more to repair the damage Bill Campbell caused for the city than did everyone in Atlanta’s delegation combined. No one would be able to win over every country lawmaker who’s made a career out of slamming Atlanta, but Franklin didn’t let that stop her from trying.

The “Almost a Real Man Award,” to Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, for being the only Democrat with the cojones to stand up to King Roy. After Barnes vetoed $4.6 million in library funding that would have partially gone to Coleman’s district, Coleman led a mutiny to override Barnes, and by most accounts he had the votes to do it. In the end, Coleman backed down, but it’s nice to see a lawmaker with a backbone every now and then. Only problem is that library funds generally are pork projects.

The “Keep Georgia Beautiful Award,” to Garden Club of Georgia lobbyist Rachel Fowler, for defeating the powerful billboard industry’s push to space sky-blocking signs every 3,000 feet instead of the current 5,000 feet.

The “Don Quixote Sometimes Wins Award,” to Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, for finally beating the sleaziest of the sleazy — lenders who market loans to the elderly and poor, knowing full-well that the likely outcome will be foreclosure on their homes. Long before Barnes came along, Fort was holding community meetings, talking to churches, and introducing legislation on the evils of predatory lending. “It’s not a perfect bill,” he says, “but it’s a good bill — one of the strongest in the country.”

The “This Is Not Quite An Endorsement Award,” to Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta, for spending the last 28 years in the General Assembly protecting the city when it was the in thing to bash Atlanta. At the same time though, Scott was willing to chastise city leaders when they were arrogant and too demanding. As the chairman of the Rules Committee for the last 10 years, Scott was able to start and stop legislation at his discretion. That power enabled him to help Atlanta in ways no other lawmaker could. And he distinguished himself in lonely, occasionally effective fights, on important issues, including gun safety and cleaning landfills. Without him, the bad years would have been a lot worse, and the good years wouldn’t have been as good.

The “This One is Going to Sound Really Weird Award,” to Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, who has won Golden Sleaze Awards in the past for conflicts of interest and outright meanness. What’s he doing in the good guys section? Well, Cheeks mystified even his own colleagues by putting the guts back in the predatory lending legislation after Massey and Murphy took them out. He also helped kill Twiggs’ ATV bill. Doing the right thing feels kind of good, for a change, huh?

The “New Heart of the General Assembly” to Sen. Doug Haines, D-Athens, for stepping in for Rep. Jim Martin, the previous heart of the General Assembly, who left the legislature to become the state human resources commissioner.

When Haines heard dozens of families in his district were going to be displaced because the owner of a trailer park was selling out, he tried to pass a bill that would have given mobile home owners first bid for the land they live on. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t pass.

The “Squeaky Wheel Award,” to Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, for taking on the most powerful good ol’ boys in the state and whipping their butts.

White Democrats tried to take key neighborhoods out of her district and dilute the percent of black voters from 67 percent to 50 percent so a white Democrat could win in Savannah. Thomas rallied support from the Senate’s 23 Republicans, five African-Americans and one white Democrat to pass an amendment with 29 votes that kept the districts around Savannah intact.