Golden Sleaze Awards - The 19th Annual Golden Sleaze Awards
It would have been nice this year had Georgia lawmakers served up solutions to our water, transit, school and budget woes. Instead, they piled their plates high with favors for lobbyists, wack social issues and election-year grandstanding. Why are we not surprised? The state Senate and House are slated to close their annual legislative session this week with little to show for their efforts beyond a Georgia that's worse off than it was three months ago — but, praise the Lord, is still safe from Sunday alcohol sales.
Because nothing befits an elected official's legacy more than CL's accolades, we're delighted to research the work of those who practiced misdeeds while preaching morality, who placed their personal pocketbooks above principles. and who distinguished themselves as the vilest of the venal. And we're proud to recognize them with ...The 19th Annual Golden Sleaze Awards
House Speaker Glenn Richardson: Coming off last year's debacle of a session, one would expect Richardson to behave in a more circumspect manner and pick fewer public fights.
One would be so wrong it hurts.
For starters, the speaker's scheme to do away with property taxes represented an unprecedented power grab in which House leaders would control city and county purse strings. Richardson did little to dispel the criticism, instead lashing out at local elected officials. "I'm not sure I trust local governments to set their own tax rates," he testified in a packed committee hearing.
When the Democratic minority balked at his plan to nix school taxes, the speaker simply replaced his own language with other folks' warmed-over anti-tax legislation, kept his name on the bill and squired through a measure that would land the state budget up to $1 billion in the red.
But the tax maneuvers were the height of diplomacy compared to the speaker's reaction to his failure to install his handpicked transportation commissioner. When DOT board members sided with Gov. Sonny Perdue in naming bureaucrat Gena Abraham head road builder, Richardson pitched a hissy fit, threatened to unseat board members, and punished legislators – mostly libertarian conservatives – who didn't vote the way he wanted. He even reportedly attempted to buy off DOT Board Chairman Mike Evans with a cushy state appointment. Richardson looks all the more ridiculous now that Abraham appears to be the reformer the department so badly needed.
Later, when Democrats succeeded in defeating the English-only resolution – the Karl Rove wedge issue du jour – the payback had Richardson's fingerprints all over it: a hateful bill to allow police to seize the vehicles of anyone who seems foreign and isn't carrying ID was rushed to the House floor after skirting the normal committee process. It passed the House (although it isn't likely to get through the Senate).
Add to those episodes the speaker's questionably sealed, not-quite-divorce proceedings and the budget and veto fireworks that will undoubtedly happen while this story is being printed and you've got another bang-up year for the Man Who Would Be King.
Rep. Ron Forster, R-Ringgold: Against stiff competition, Forster may have succeeded in drafting the flat-out stupidest bill of the year. Titled the "Life to Life" program for reasons we couldn't discern, the legislation would have allowed the Parole Board to outsource prison labor to private companies working in overseas war zones. Yes, you read that right: If Forster had his way, Halliburton could use Georgia inmates to dig latrines in Kabul or build roads in Baghdad. "Seems like there's a lot that could go wrong," observed a fellow legislator when Forster presented his bill in committee. No shit. Of course, Forster made clear that the program would be voluntary, inmates would get to keep 60 percent of their earnings (the state would get a chunk as well) and those who survived their tour of duty would be eligible for early parole. Actually, Forster told the committee, he originally wanted to give inmates the chance to get out of prison by joining the military, but learned the Army doesn't take convicted felons. Bummer. Needless to say, Life to Life died a quiet death.
Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill: Reese cares for mutts, as he showed with his bill to toughen Georgia's dogfighting laws. What he doesn't care for are Mexi-kids. In one of the most mean-spirited of a host of mean-spirited anti-immigrant bills this session, he floated a resolution to urge Congress to deny citizenship to children born in the United States of parents who cannot claim legal residency. Essentially, Reese was seeking the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which was passed in 1868 to guarantee citizenship to slaves freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Ironic, isn't it, that a Republican lawmaker would blithely suggest overturning the most enduring legacy of the country's first GOP president? Well, perhaps not. This is Georgia-bama, after all. Fortunately, the bill never made it to a floor vote.
Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa: Yes, it's common for someone who works all day as an accountant and tax preparer – and then spends three months out of the year sitting on the legislative committee that writes tax laws – to forget to, you know, pay her taxes. That happened to Jamieson. She landed on the Georgia Department of Revenue's shitlist for owing $45,734 in back income taxes. (Not to be outdone, Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, owes $190,000 in back taxes. He won an online Golden Sleaze, which you can read on the Fresh Loaf blog.) The reason she slipped up? "Sometimes when you are so busy looking after everybody else's business, you don't pay as much attention to your own as you should," Jamieson told the AJC. That's inventive, but we give her credit for admitting her error: "I obviously dropped the ball and the fault is mine and mine only."
Rep. Martin Scott, R-Rossville, and Bobby Franklin, R-Rigel VII: Seeing right-wing wackos Scott and Franklin work a House committee with lunatic-fringe legislation can suggest a comedy team, with Scott the putative straight man and Franklin the clown. Dubbed the "human life" amendment, Scott's measure called for the state to recognize a fertilized human embryo as a "person" with attendant rights. During seven hours of hearings, biologists, scholars and other experts detailed the legal and ethical havoc such an act would create. Scott brushed all that pointy-headed talk aside, telling the committee, "I want to protect innocent human life; it's that simple." After Scott's amendment was shelved, Franklin took the podium with televangelical bluster in favor of his bill to have abortion providers put to death. Starting out by quoting several minutes' worth of Scripture, Franklin wound up his tirade by railing against the "slaughter of the unborn." His bill, too, was aborted by the committee. We suggest Scott and Franklin take their act on the road – and stay there.
Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville: Who's keeping you safe from illegal immigrants, pesky abortionists and man's biggest nemesis, the marsupial? Mills is! He's the one who tried to sneak a "human life begins at conception" clause onto an unrelated bill (Speaker Richardson ruled the amendment out of order). Mills is an idea man. In one of many bills this session aimed at harassing illegal immigrants, he proposed police be allowed to seize a vehicle if the driver violated a traffic law or was in an accident. Where are the illegal immigrants coming from? "Iraq, Iran, Irania, Jordan," he was quoted in the AJC as saying to members of the House. Yes, "Irania" – the make-believe home to many of the marsupials Mills targeted by another of his WTF bills: It would require owners of marsupials – "dangerous animals," he says – to buy insurance and get a permit if they want their companionship.
Rep. Ron Sailor, D-Lithonia: If half of life is just showing up, Sailor may not be a sentient being. He first generated ink this year when it was revealed he missed an astounding 91 percent of votes. Turns out the legislator had a good excuse – he'd been quietly cooperating with a U.S. attorney after he was fingered in a $350,000 laundering sting involving purported drug money. It was another remarkable accomplishment to go on the pastor's political résumé, joining bounced checks and campaign finance imbroglios. Sailor, who faces a possible 20 years in the clink, also received an $80,000 "loan" last year from Willie Green, a lobbyist for the payday lending industry. Delicious irony: Sailor supposedly had five days to pay the loan back. What legislation pushed by Green did Sailor vote for? A bill that would've repealed the ban on payday lending. Coincidence, surely.
Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth: Thanks to our little water-supply problem, Georgia has become a punch line for late-night talk-show hosts (think praying for rain on the Capitol steps). And Shafer's ballsy border-grab resolution only added to their arsenal. Citing a legal paper on the issue, he proposed moving our state line with Tennessee just a tad north and within reach of our neighbor's eponymous river – where it would have been if not for an 1818 surveying error. Tennesseans reacted with a very diplomatic middle finger. Yes, the senator said, we also must practice conservation and build reservoirs. But maybe rethinking our consume-at-all-costs mind-set might have helped before we began an unwinnable border war. In defense of his idea, Shafer puttered out a questionable Native American proverb about "sharing water." We've got another one, senator; it's from the Sioux tribe: "The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives."
Gov. Sonny Perdue: Tailgaters, out-of-towners and alcoholics have pined for Sunday booze for years. Our teetotaling governor can't grasp that. When it comes to sales on the Sabbath at a planned baseball stadium in Gwinnett, well, that's OK; it's an economic development project. But folks who want to sip firewater outside that stadium better stock up ahead of time, drive to a restaurant or head for the state line. And then drive home, presumably. Perdue told InsiderAdvantage that "six days is plenty to gather up alcohol." A proposed constitutional amendment allowing Sunday sales would have required a statewide referendum in November. Thanks to Perdue, however, the idea may sleep it off in the Capitol. He may want to adhere to the free market side of his Republican ideology: butt out of the people's business and let them decide how they should live their lives.
Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague, D-Red Oak: Jack Kerouac would be proud of Beasley-Teague. During last year's South Georgia fires and drought, the Red Oak rambler charted more miles in record time than a white-knuckled, pill-popping trucker – then she sought mileage reimbursements from taxpayers. According to her filings, Beasley-Teague drove on April 28 from Fairburn to Cordele to Valdosta to Jekyll Island and back to Fairburn. On May 1, she navigated from Fairburn to Macon to Tybee Island and back home. That's two days and 1,223 miles on the road. According to expense reports, she received $593.16. Add more days of questionable travel and $1,716.42 to the tab, and it's enough to make the State Ethics Commission raise an eyebrow. Her response to an online news site? She was doing her job and visiting constituents, although "I'm learning to do e-mail," she says. Learn on, sister – if you can write as much as you drive, you could charge taxpayers by the word.
Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem: If you truly want to control an issue, it helps first to create one. Angered by the turtle-crawl progress of the Brian Nichols case, Fleming and his cohorts on a joint judicial committee did just that to the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council, the stash of cash that provides legal representation to defendants unable to pay for the services. It's a pillar of the legal system: It ensures victims or their families don't find themselves facing an overturned decision because of shoddy representation; it gives innocents the chance to fend off a vacation behind bars. Fleming, like a bully on a playground, helped bleed the system dry of funding last year. Then he became outraged that the fund ran out of money. He and his election-year compadres wanted to look tough on crime and didn't mind doing so at the expense of the criminal justice system.
Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica: Ever wanted a handgun at your son's Little League game? Maybe feel the warmth of a weapon against your hip after Communion? Tim Bearden understands, man. When not espousing the need to ostracize immigrants with a constitutional amendment designating English as the official language, the Douglas County lawmaker added language to one of his bills that would allow people to tote guns pretty much anywhere, including zoos, parks and churches – anywhere you could sneak a six shooter. He told WSB-TV it would allow people to defend themselves and others. The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police said it wasn't too hot of an idea, calling it "extremely harmful to the tranquility of society," and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce cringed at the idea of Charles Bronsons wannabes packing Desert Eagles in their cars. At press time, the NRA was still pushing hard for a vote on Bearden's bill.
Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock: A Republican ex-legislator has a spot-on theory about the type of folks who initially get swept into elected office by a major shift in the political tide, as when Georgia turned from blue to red. He calls them the "first-wave nutjobs." We can't think of a better example than Byrd, a backbencher with zero Statehouse qualifications, unless you count lemminglike partisanship and an "all government is bad" mind-set. A telling moment came when Byrd, sitting in the committee that considers bills affecting criminal statutes, remarked that Georgia would be better off if criminals simply were never let out of prison. We might expect those sentiments from the high school dropout who empties grease traps for a living, but for a state lawmaker to have such a meager understanding and respect for our legal system and the concept of due process is, frankly, disgusting.
Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen: The Silver Fox is best-known as the man who unseated the late Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy before moving on to the Senate. As Gov. Perdue's floor leader, he pushed a bill this year exempting hunting camps and private fishing holes from being sued if a person was injured on the property. According to disclosure reports, lobbyist J. Scott Tanner paid late last year for Heath to take a $1,500 trip to a National Assembly of Sportsmen's event. "Did the junket sway you at all in proposing the legislation?" CL asked. "Absolutely not," Heath responded. We're sure they just engaged in lively conversation about how the owners of hunting grounds should never have to be responsible, say, if a vice president accidentally shot someone in the face. Or maybe if Joe Q. Breadwinner fell off a shoddy fishing dock and broke his neck.
EPD Director Carol Couch: If the state's economic boosters worried as much about Mother Nature as the environmental agency did the economy, we'd be in a blissful state of balance. Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, caused a brief uproar last month when Fox5 TV uncovered evidence that she overrode her own agency's judgment and gave a pass to state Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans to build a Wal-Mart on a stream in Forsyth County. Evans and some of his boys were blocked by the agency, and their business development was in peril. The Wal-Mart deal ultimately foundered. But the director proved she's as adept at playing politics as she is at carrying water for the governor.
Rep. Tom Knox, R-Cumming: Whenever Knox authors a bill, Christmas seems to come early for the insurance industry. This year, the curmudgeonly Cummingite may have given his beloved auto insurers their best present yet. When a long-winded Senate bill dealing with uninsured motorists landed in the House Insurance Committee, which Knox chairs, he snuck in an amendment allowing insurers to raise rates on policyholders – that's all of us – without needing approval from the state insurance commissioner. In years past, the Legislature has rejected this blatant give-away to the insurance lobby; this time it sailed seemingly unnoticed through both chambers. Not content with this act of industry charity, Knox penned another measure that would provide a tax break for insurers offering high-deductible health plans – an idea that critics say won't do squat to help consumers. The bill now rests in the Senate. Presumably, Knox will find himself showered with gifts when he calls upon his insurance friends come campaign season.
Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough: Lunsford is a "hawk," a House member granted special powers by the speaker to swoop in for votes in any of the chamber's committees. Last year, he authored a bill designed to force labor unions to reveal guarded financial information. But the measure was amended in such a way as to outlaw lobbying by any group that receives public funding – or even does business with any government entity. Needless to say, that would make the Capitol a very lonely place. When the committee tabled the bill this year, however, Lunsford demanded a revote based on his status as "senior hawk" – even though he was not acting on behalf of the House leaders who'd given him his preposterous title. The dopey bill failed again, but be warned: Once you let the senior hawk out of its cage, it's hard to get it back in.
Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville: Pearson pens lots of legislation. Among those this year were an odious (and moribund) bill to exempt DOT contractors from erosion-control laws and legislation that would strip state funding from cities that declare themselves "sanctuaries" for illegal immigrants (even though no city in Georgia has declared itself one). But it was three bills Pearson helped kill that had advocates calling him "the environmental anti-Christ" by the middle of the session. As chairman of a committee that had been sitting on Sen. Jeff Chapman's three bills to protect Jekyll Island from development, the man with the magic moustache faced pressure to finally give the legislation a hearing. So he convened a hastily organized meeting – and started it by insisting that women who came up from the coast to argue for conservation get up so that high-powered Jekyll Island Authority members could sit in their place. Then he ushered along the year's ultimate special interest deal by ensuring that the legislation to protect Jekyll wouldn't see the House floor.
Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, and Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock: You have to wonder whether Staton was trying to grease a deal or commit political hari-kari when he proposed the state set up a website for legal ads. The notices for such actions as foreclosures and public property sales have long been the bread and butter of community newspapers. Blogger Amy Morton got curious about his bill, co-sponsored by chambermate Rogers, to take the lion's share of that business from the papers. Never mind that not everyone's online quite yet. But who contributed $1,000 to each man's campaign? Why, a California-based company steeped in managing such Internet sites did! No telling what business interest inspired Staton to propose another piece of legislation – a resolution urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency not to tighten up the nation's air quality standards.
Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, and Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan: God forbid members of the General Assembly actually debate something before voting. The statewide water "plan" – the toothless paper tiger produced by three years of meetings that culminated poetically with this year's drought – was derided by environmentalists and everyone other than metro Atlanta and business interests. No worries. Tolleson, chairman of the Senate's Natural Resources and Environment Committee, and Smith, his House counterpart, steamrolled the plan through both chambers within five days of the session's start. Smith pulled a Teddy Ruxpin and regurgitated identical talking points to her colleagues in the Rules Committee and on the chamber floor, all the while brushing off opponents of the plan as hoodwinked worrywarts. And Perdue and the Legislature managed to look like they were solving a crisis.
Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs: As a Capitol source said, "It's never a good idea to start explaining a bill by what it's not." Willard did just that when he pushed a convoluted piece of legislation that would allow local municipalities to buddy up and start their own water authorities. Fair-minded individuals noted that the bill could undermine the bonds used to pay for Mayor Shirley Franklin's much-needed sewer repair by allowing a city – such as, oh, let's say Sandy Springs – to abandon its obligations to Atlanta, its current water provider. Thankfully, Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, who co-sponsored the legislation, counted the votes from the dais and moved to table it before both he and Willard were embarrassed by a nay vote. Willard also introduced a cloak-and-dagger bill that would've rendered deals brokered by development authorities – which are public agencies and use public money – off-limits to Open Records Requests. That one appears to have died before getting to the House floor.