Cover Story: The 16th Annual Golden Sleaze Awards

It’s been said that the 2005 session was the most business-friendly in recent memory. Come to think of it, we said that. And, by golly, we were right. The Republican-controlled Legislature ladled out a $1 billion tax break to Georgia industry and looked for novel ways to loosen regulations, limit liability and - we sense a theme here - cloak its corporate buddies in a veil of secrecy.

But there were other noteworthy goings-on in ‘05, from efforts to restrict access to abortions and remap congressional districts, to such gubernatorial belly flops as faith-based grants, a neutered ethics bill and Sonny’s stillborn scheme to put eminent domain to work for developers.

Populating the circus was a colorful cast of ne’er-do-wells, ward healers, grandstanders, holy rollers, lobbyists, four-flushers and political climbers.

So join us as we trudge through 40 days of sleaze to single out the most reprehensible acts of 2005.

The Sgt. Schultz Award?
?To Gov. Sonny Perdue

When it comes to declaring where he stands on the important issues of the day, Sonny’s mantra has been: “I know nuthink!”

Unlike former Gov. Roy Barnes, who rarely ducked a chance to show support for his own legislation, Perdue seems guided by the notion that folks can’t dislike you if they don’t know where you stand. Thus, he publicly played coy with such GOP must-haves as tort reform and his own HB 218, an economic development initiative dubbed the “secrecy bill” by a wary press.

As soon as tort reform passed, however, the gubna declared his undying support for the measure. One lawmaker said it reminded him of “a rooster taking credit for the sun shining.”

On the other hand, by keeping an arm’s length from HB 218, Sonny has left some of the bill’s early backers bad-mouthing him for hanging them out to dry with an unpopular piece of legislation. The distancing act likely won’t work: Sonny may play the know-nothing, but it’s no secret where the secrecy bill came from.

The Clueless Pack Mule Award?
?To Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta

How many bills can one person carry when she doesn’t know what she’s talking about? Lawmakers and lobbyists alike were appalled by Burmeister’s lack of familiarity with the controversial measures she toted for others - among them overhauling child support and requiring voters to bring photo IDs to the polls.

In one recent committee meeting, she was unable to answer questions about her own bill to allow misdemeanor defendants to opt for jury trials, a sizable change in Georgia’s legal code. She explained her ignorance by conceding, “I’m not an attorney.”

So why was shallow Sue picked to carry so much complicated legislation? Simple: political correctness. GOP leaders shrewdly - or was it cynically? - realized that having their more noxious bills peddled by a woman could defuse criticism. As one wag put it, “The GOP wanted to put a woman’s face on Republican legislation and the best they could come up with was Burmeister’s.”

The Giving Birds of Prey a Bad Name Award?
To Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram; and Reps. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta; and Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons

As if it weren’t enough that Republicans controlled the House and Senate, GOP leaders concocted aggressive new ways to quash minority opposition and limit debate.

They larded committees with Republicans, scrapping an age-old tradition that gave everyone three assignments regardless of party affiliation. They fiddled with filing deadlines to make it difficult for Democrats to suggest changes to bills. And they altered the rules on when a bill could be protected from floor amendments, which resulted in a tort reform law that satisfied few.

But the supreme moment of hubris came when Richardson announced his “hawks,” three junior pols given the power to swoop into any committee and vote to make sure the speaker gets his way.

As the session played out, the hawks saw little use (Burkhalter, Keen and Fleming had - and used - similar capabilities). But, as shocking abuses of authority go, their creation sets a lousy precedent. Richardson can only hope the day doesn’t come soon that the hawks bite his party in the ass.

The What Was the Point? Award?
To Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta

It’s probably a truism that working under the shadow of a 142-count criminal indictment tends to negatively impact one’s effectiveness. Of the many groups that lost ground this session, the biggest losers arguably were the constituents of the walking ethics complaint named Charles Walker.

Democratic apologists argued that the former majority leader did well by keeping his trap shut and not drawing attention to himself. But if Walker really cared about the voters in his district, he never would have launched his re-election ego-trip in the first place. As long as Walker remains in the General Assembly, where he occupies the well-earned post of pariah-in-chief, the folks back home will be shit outta luck.

The Was It Worth It? Award?
?To Reps. Hinson Mosley, R-Jesup; Penny Houston, R-Nashville; and Chuck Sims, R-Douglas

The three became the latest party-switchers to throw personal ethics to the wind when they jumped ship to the GOP last November within a week of winning re-election as Democrats.

Mosley particularly rankled his former partymates by whining about how hard it was to be a rural Democratic lawmaker and hitting them up for campaign donations - then pulling the double-cross as soon as he’d won the race with their financial help. Since his return to the Capitol, he’s distinguished himself by quoting Bible passages in a speech attacking abortion rights and co-sponsoring a resolution urging Congress to make English the U.S. government’s official language.

The Paperwork’s a Bitch Bill?
To Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville

Rogers floated a bill this year to repeal the Georgia Cemetery and Funeral Services Act. That’s right: Not amend or even “reform” it, but simply wipe out the entire statute that regulates the funeral home industry and provides consumer protections to people buying cemetery plots and caskets.

Rogers’ bill would be boneheaded enough in the wake of the Tri-State Crematory scandal. But he has a personal reason for wanting the pesky regs to vanish. He co-owns a chain of funeral homes with former public service commissioner and perennial Golden Sleaze laureate Lauren “Bubba” McDonald. It appears that Rogers is willing to pave the way for the next Ray Brent Marsh, as long as it will ease his own workload.

The Thin Veneer of Respectability Award?
To Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta

This year saw Franklin, right-wing wacko, elevated to Bobby Franklin, committee chairman.

What the fuck? You’da thunk that the same guy who’d authored bills to empower scooter riders to carry side arms, to place the words “In God We Trust” on the state flag, and to require that pregnant mothers obtain a “death warrant” from a judge before having an abortion would continue to be treated as the salted nut roll he is.

Certainly Franklin’s current offerings of loony legislation - most notably, to allow Second Amendment fetishists to tote their shootin’ irons into downtown restaurants - indicate he hasn’t developed any newfound gravitas now that his party has taken power. And yet, in what can only be construed as a cruel joke on liberals and those of sound mind, Franklin was handed the reins of the House Reapportionment Committee, which has been busy this session churning out secret maps to help elect more GOP congressmen.

Our only consolation is that, once the maps are approved, his committee will go into hibernation until the next census and the Kook of Cobb will go back to doodling on the walls of his padded cell.

The Git Off’n Mah Propity Award?
To Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville

Pearson, a freshman legislator, quickly crowned himself the property-rights nut’s property-rights nut with a pair of fantasy bills for land rapists.

One would have allowed property owners to cut any trees on their land, negating all local tree ordinances. The other, even wackier, measure would have allowed a property owner to recover damages for any potential use of his land prohibited by local land-use strictures, zoning laws or environmental regulations. What would that mean, if it actually made sense?

Theoretically, that cities and counties would have to compensate property owners for any possible use of their land - building a NASCAR track, selling out to Wal-Mart, opening a strip mine - that isn’t allowed by local law.

The Gold Dome Bully Award?
To Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville

When the powerful Rules Committee chairman’s bill to legalize sparklers was first defeated in the House earlier this month, he roared back into the Senate, loudly denouncing Rep. Stacey Reese, R-Gainesville, one of several Republicans who voted down the measure. “His smoking bill is dead!” Balfour seethed.

In the days that followed, sore loser Balfour let it be known that he was quite willing to abuse his power by playing tit-for-tat, threatening to bottle up House bills by GOP lawmakers who wouldn’t reverse their sparkler vote. He even posted a list of offenders on his office wall.

When the big man’s bill was reconsidered, Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton, served as Balfour’s errand boy in the well, warning ominously, “Just remember whose bill this is.” Not surprisingly, it now looks as if Georgia young’uns will be playing with sparklers come this Fourth of July. Ain’t the democratic process wonderful?

The Freshmen Should Be Seen and Not Heard Award?
To Reps. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, and Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross

Memo to Messrs. Davis and Hatfield from some of your more seasoned GOP colleagues: Shaddup!

Perhaps you didn’t get a copy of the unwritten rules of the House that say newcomers should pay attention to veterans and try to learn the ropes before opening their yaps. Yet you guys - cocky upstarts both, by all accounts - rarely ceased annoying your elders with endless questions from the floor (Hatfield) and hyper-partisan wrangling (Davis). Even Speaker Glenn Richardson became peeved with your (Davis’) tiresome efforts to challenge Democratic amendments to GOP legislation.

Maybe all this helps explain why your own oh-so-important pet bills - to ban billboard advertising by strip clubs (Davis) and to loosen up the probable cause requirement for cops to demand DUI piss tests (Hatfield) - never saw the light of day. Hmmm?

The Suck-up Wannabe Award?
To Rep. Richard Royal, D-Camilla

The scuttlebutt in the early days of the session was that Royal, a conservative Democrat from southwest Georgia, pleaded with the new Republican leadership to give him a plum committee post if he switched parties. Word has it there were no goodies left for latecomers, so Royal kept the “D” behind his name.

But that hasn’t stopped him from toadying, kissing ass and generally being a GOP bitch at every turn. He sided with the majority on the draconian House rules and on tort reform, and even provided the pivotal crossover vote needed to dismantle the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety.

But Royal outdid himself in the eyes of his GOP masters last week when he sponsored the “dead-head logging” bill, which would jeopardize the health of Georgia streams and rivers so a handful of rich guys could get expensive paneling in their Sea Island mansions.

The God’s Vessel in the Senate Award?
To Sen. Nancy Schaefer, R-Turnerville

Many people were awaiting the moment when Her Holiness would take the well. Would fire shoot from her eyes and lay waste to the Senate chamber like in that cool scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? Or would she drop some crazy amendment to make women wear a scarlet “A” for abortion?

When Schaefer, a Christian extremist and GOP stalwart who stands somewhere to the right of Randall Terry and Joseph McCarthy, finally showed her true colors (Red Sea red), it was pitifully anticlimactic. Instead of the expected bill mandating the display of the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, it was a toothless resolution “encouraging” same. Let’s hope for Nancy’s sake that the Big Guy isn’t disappointed.

The Height of Hypocrisy Award?
To Gov. Sonny Perdue

At first, we figured we’d re-honor Rep. Sue Burmeister for the ideological back flips she performed in pushing her “Women’s Right to Know” bill. Like when she told CL that she saw no inconsistency between shielding surgeons from malpractice suits via tort reform and encouraging lawsuits against abortion doctors. But Sonny took the prize this year by insisting that his “faith-based” resolution was needed to overturn an obscure constitutional provision that allegedly was the product of anti-Catholic bias.

Leave aside for a moment that his claim that Georgia’s code contains an anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendment” is a proven fiction. His hypocrisy stems from the fact that Perdue’s the same guy who campaigned for office on a Rebel-flag emblem that even old-timers who voted for it in 1956 concede was intended as a swipe at integration.

So our Baptist governor would have us believe that he’s personally driven to erase discrimination against Catholics that supposedly took place in the late 1800s, while he couldn’t give a cold turd about discrimination against black Georgians that occurred only a generation ago.

The God’s Man in the House Award?
To Rep. Ben Bridges, R-Cleveland

One of the most pathetic sights this session was this sad, simple little man making a barely coherent case before a clearly uncomfortable House Education Committee for his twin bills to let creationism be taught in public schools and to allow teachers to quote from the Bible.

“Teach anything you wanna teach, as long as it can be supported by factual, scientific evidence,” Bridges explained, inscrutably. After some throat-clearing and sidelong glances, the GOP-controlled committee killed his creationism bill and gutted his Bible bill, which was subsequently lost in the legislative shuffle.

One of his partymates, trying to put an upbeat spin on Bridges’ humiliation, observed, “Well, I think he was sincere.”

To Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, D-Austell

We appreciate her frustration and anger. But Morgan, 26, didn’t do her party or her political career any favors during her in-House protest of a bill to reduce the number of valid IDs recognized at the polls. She refused the Speaker’s requests to yield the House well and then broke into a protest song.

Morgan had registered her distaste for the bill during the previous night’s debate by joining fellow Democrats in a dramatic walkout. But then, on the very morning that House leaders had set aside to showcase the legislative process to Georgia families, she caused the biggest flap of the session.

Although Richardson was gracious in accepting her private apology, Morgan’s unnecessarily disrespectful display may have hindered progress made in House race relations in a session already marked by tension between white suburban Republicans and black Democrats. (For an alternate view of Morgan’s action, see Doug Monroe’s “Humbug Square” column on page 26.)

The Don’t Let the Revolving Door Hit You On the Way Out Award?
To former Sen. Dan Lee, R-LaGrange

Last session, Lee served as Perdue’s point man for his failed state ethics reform package, which included a mandatory one-year waiting period between lawmaking and lobbying. This session, Lee, a party-switcher who lost re-election, is back as, you guessed it, a high-priced call girl, um, we mean lobbyist.

The shameless ex-pol is leaning on his former colleagues to pass a Senate bill to consolidate close to $1.5 billion in outstanding state university bond debt. Critics have attacked the measure as a power grab by the governor to force schools to kowtow to a new state bonding authority. But even if that charge is off the mark, only the most ethically challenged sleaze-bucket could believe it acceptable for a recently rejected “public servant” to be making a major policy pitch on behalf of investment banking giant Goldman Sachs, which is angling to make millions by scoring the underwriting contract for said bonds.

His former floor leader’s new career makes you wonder how serious Perdue was when he supposedly tried again this year to slow the revolving door from legislator to lobbyist.

The Bringing Your Personal Issues to Work Award?
To Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs

Earl certainly was on a mission when he rammed his pet child-support bill - pithily dubbed the “mad dads’ bill” - through the House over lawmakers’ concerns that it could hurt kids of feuding, divorced parents. That’s because, as an angry, divorced father himself, Ehrhart has long been on the warpath for dad’s rights - specifically, the right for dads to get out of paying child support - and has been known to label his female critics as “man-haters.”

Isn’t it comforting to know that an important public policy shift affecting the welfare of Georgia’s children is being driven by a bitter man obsessed by a unhealthy desire to get back at his ex?

The Cynicism Is The Best Medicine Award?
To Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, and Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem

The buzz is that these young GOP shepherds of tort reform have bright political futures. That is, until the issue blows up in their party’s face - as even some Republicans predict it will - and the two are rightly vilified for railroading a defective bill through the committee process.

Fleming (possessor of the House’s most imaginative comb-over), gave fellow committee members no time to read his substitute before he forced a vote, spurring Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, to leave the meeting in protest. On the Senate side, Smith rejected one Democratic amendment that came in a few minutes shy of a new 24-hour deadline and another because its line references didn’t match up with a substitute its author had not been allowed to see.

Here are two guys praying there’s no such thing as karma.

The There You Go Again Award?
To Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville

Cagle, who apparently won’t rest until Georgia resembles Chernobyl, continued his legislative onslaught against air, land and water this year with a trio of measures conceived in an industrialist’s wet dream.

One would have extended legal protections intended for a handful of “brownfield” waste sites to hundreds of abandoned gas stations with leaky underground tanks. Another would have shielded chicken-rendering plants from nuisance claims by neighboring property owners. But his boldest move was to propose gutting a state law that restricts the number of landfills you can have in a neighborhood.

We can only hope Cagle comes back in his next life as a snail darter.

The Constituent Service Award?
To Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs

Yes, Bobby Franklin carried this bill to lower qualifications to practice law in Georgia, but it was at the behest of House Rules Committee Chairman Ehrhart, who wanted to address a frequent constituent request.

Actually, the requests came from one particular constituent. And, OK, she just so happens to work for Ehrhart as his legislative aide. Seems that Sara Larios, who took classes online from a nonaccredited, Christian-based “law school” in California, was peeved that the Georgia Bar wouldn’t accept her bona fides. So HB 150 was cooked up to allow any wannabe shyster who passed another state’s bar exam to take Georgia’s, regardless of whether he or she has a J.D. or even graduated high school. Yes, the same folks who wail about “activist judges” are determined to drop standards for the entire legal profession in Georgia.

As President Bush might say, “That’s very ironical.”

THE King Gonzo Partisan Hack Award?
To Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta

This should have been a tough one, but Wiles had the inside track from the get-go with his surly and mean-spirited approach toward legislating. He clinched the prize recently when he abruptly shut down a committee meeting the moment Secretary of State Cathy Cox walked through the door, rather than give the Democratic gubernatorial candidate the opportunity to testify against the voter-ID bill.

If Wiles were more diplomatic, his petty partisan tactics and perpetual scowl might seem less off-putting. As a Senate colleague wondered, “How do you get elected if you’re not even likable?” Damned if we know.

The Jerk in Sheep’s Clothing Award?
To Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon

Although he resembles a mild-mannered school headmaster, freshman Staton seems less influenced by Mr. Chips than by Mr. Scratch.

For starters, he sponsored two of the session’s more divisive bills, straight from the Karl Rove playbook: a voter-ID bill aimed at reducing access to the polls for certain demographics, and a measure to allow businesses to dump health coverage for birth-control pills, mastectomy treatment and other items that largely affect women.

But while some lawmakers are able to maintain a certain charm while pushing hurtful policies - Ehrhart comes to mind - Staton turned off many of his colleagues with un-statesman-like flashes of peevishness and rage whenever his proposals were questioned.

The First Class Sucker Award?
To Georgia’s doctors

Don’t you have to be smart to graduate from medical school? Few insurance executives were seen at the Capitol lobbying for tort reform. That drudge work was left to doctors, who flooded the halls and testified in committee in a crusade to win caps on malpractice damage awards.

And yet, there’s nothing in the new law that compels big insurance companies to pass savings on to physicians. The best that giant MAG Mutual could muster was a feeble pledge that it would lower rates by 10 percent - after years of steady increases - at some point in the future.

Docs screwed themselves further by pushing to abolish joint and several liability, a legal rule that allows personal-injury victims to collect damages from the defendant with the deepest pockets - say, a large hospital - rather than the defendant who actually caused the injury - say, a young surgeon. Doh!