Golden Sleaze Awards - The 22nd Annual Golden Sleaze Awards
Recognizing the lunacy and low moments of the Georgia General Assembly
It was supposed to be a new day for Peach State Republicans. Fresh off their landslide election victory, the new governor and a passel of Tea Party freshmen unschooled in the dark arts of the Gold Dome were expected to roll into Atlanta on a Reagan-esque mission to slash taxes, scare off brown people and stand up for fetuses (feti?). But as Georgia lawmakers are wont to do, they got, uh, distracted along the way.
Even before the General Assembly began, there was all-out mutiny in the state Senate, long considered the more orderly of the Legislature’s two chambers, resulting in a leadership vacuum that slowed progress to a crawl. An attempt to overhaul the state’s outdated, exemption-laden tax code was largely conducted behind closed doors — not that the secrecy prevented the ultimately failed endeavor from turning into a clusterf*&k. And a simple measure to allow communities to vote on Sunday alcohol sales was a near-disaster. About the only thing everyone could agree on was slashing a chunk of the HOPE budget.
Throw in the usual assortment of wingnuts, anti-immigrant ranters and nest-featherers and, Boom! — another 40 days best forgotten. But before the lawmakers slink out of town, we want to honor the dunces, sleazoids and outright scoundrels among their rather rank ranks. In keeping with tradition, we’ve also recognized the rare legislator who went above and beyond to help make Georgia a better place. Without further ado, we proudly present the 22nd annual Golden Sleaze Awards.
THE I’M NOT ONLY CHAIRMAN OF THE BANKING COMMITTEE, I’M ALSO A FAILED BANKER AWARD
Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming
Any lawmaker charged with overseeing complex legislation dealing with Georgia’s banks should have some hands-on familiarity with financial institutions, doncha think? You wouldn’t, however, want that lawmaker to have been banned by the federal government from working as a bank director. Such is the case with Murphy, who late last year was sued — along with other former officials of the ironically named Integrity Bank — by the FDIC for more than $70 million for “gross negligence” and various “breaches of fiduciary duty.” (In turn, he blamed the FDIC’s “lax oversight” for not stopping his bank from making bad loans.) One might have hoped Murphy would have the, um, integrity to step aside as chairman of the Senate banking committee, at least until the lawsuit is resolved. (Of course, this is the same guy who suggested that, if illegal border-crossers fight back while being arrested, border agents should “shoot to kill them, like you would any other criminal.”) Failing Murphy’s recusal, was it too much to expect Senate leaders to replace him in an attempt to preserve public confidence? Don’t make us LOL. The good senator remains in his perch.
THE BLEED ‘EM DRY FOR A WALLY WORLD AWARD
Rep. Kip Smith, R-Columbus
What better way to reignite Georgia’s dismal economy than to create $100 million-plus tourist attractions to lure folks from other states? And how better to help private companies build these aquariums, theme parks and indoor ski slopes than with sales tax increases? And, finally, how much easier would it be to enact such taxes if you didn’t have to give local taxpayers a say? Such were the corporate-giveaway dreams of Smith, who apparently wants his first term under the Gold Dome to be his last. Under his ballsy bill, cities or counties could tack a “tourism tax” of up to 3 percent onto the existing local sales tax, without needing approval from voters. Revenues generated by the tax increase would be handed over to some lucky company to help develop — Smith is sketchy on details here — an awesome attraction certain to lure out-of-state tourists in droves. Despite his status as a Legislative Legacy — Daddy is DOT Commissioner and former lawmaker Vance Smith — Smith’s bill never even made it to committee.
THE IN THESE TOUGH TIMES, POLLUTERS DESERVE A BREAK AWARD
Rep. James Epps, R-Dry Branch
Every year, at least one state lawmaker treats Georgia’s waterways like the Turner Field urinals during a seventh-inning stretch. In 2011, it was James “Bubber” Epps’ turn. The middle Georgian, who joined the GOP after the November elections, sponsored a bill that would relax the penalties for the DOT and its private contractors who allow dirt to clog streams during road projects. Under Epps’ bill, sediment and erosion pollution fines would drop from a max of $50,000 to a downright affordable $5,000. What’s more, scofflaws would have a 30-day grace period to fix the problem. Considering the DOT’s dismal record of paying fines on time and its history of violations — it’s racked up more than $2 million in penalties since 2000 — it seems like a bad idea to lengthen the agency’s leash. Unless, that is, your wife owns a paving company, as does Epps’. Though the bill died in the House, it was revived as a Senate amendment before again being stifled.
THE HOOP DREAMS AWARD
Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur
While it’d be unfair to criticize the second-term lawmaker — who’s also the son of Whitman Mayo, best known as Grady on beloved ’70s sitcom “Sanford and Son” — for introducing only a single bill this year, it is disappointing to find such a back-bencher suckling so enthusiastically on the lobbyist teat. Of the $1,400 worth of perks and refreshments lavished on the Democrat this session (by contrast, Earl Ehrhart, the former House Rules chairman, only merited $384 in lobbyist lovin’), $800 of Mayo’s swag came in the form of Hawks tickets. And this tally doesn’t even include the $500 worth of food a school voucher lobbyist donated to feed Mayo’s constituents one afternoon. Mayo is smart, young and charismatic. It’d be nice to see him step up his legislative game rather than just sitting courtside.
THE SUCKING UP TO INDUSTRY, WHETHER IT WANTS IT OR NOT AWARD
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville
You know who always gets shut out of the political process? Mom-and-pop businesses with names like Southern Company, Atlanta Gas Light and AT&T. But Balfour, who, as the powerful Senate Rules chairman, has become the utilities’ chief water-carrier, does all he can to ensure these companies’ voices are heard. Two years after he — assisted by a team of 70 lobbyists — successfully pushed a bill allowing Georgia Power to charge customers in advance to build two nuclear reactors, he sponsored legislation to allow regulated utilities to make direct campaign contributions. Should Balfour’s bill pass — it awaited House approval as CL went to press — companies could blatantly bankroll candidates in order to win even more favor under the Gold Dome. Balfour has been quick to note that Public Service Commissioners, who set the rates power and cable customers pay, would be excluded. Big deal; the utilities already have the PSC in their back pocket. Besides, the Legislature can go around the PSC’s back any time it wants, as it did in granting the nukes windfall. Balfour should listen to Georgia Power, which apparently doesn’t favor the bill because it means even more lawmakers will come begging for contributions, and spike this bad idea.
THE OUT WITH THE MESSICANS! AWARD
Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City
Meet the architect behind the one anti-immigration bill that promises to send Georgia careening into the ditch. Similar to the notorious Arizona law that kicked off a national firestorm over illegal immigration, Ramsey’s legislation would, among other outrages, allow police to check the immigration status of people caught Driving While Brown and threaten prison time for folks who offer aid to undocumented aliens. Just what we need: more priests behind bars. Despite opposition from chambers of commerce, farmer associations, restaurants, the ACLU and virtually every other group with an interest in not seeing Georgia fall apart, it did find one supporter: D.A. King, the rabid anti-illegal immigrant activist who could seize the chance to sue local governments if he thinks they failed to follow one of the law’s provisions. If Ramsey stopped surfing nativist websites and read a newspaper, he’d know that Arizona’s business leaders say that state has lost tens of millions in tourism and convention business since the law’s passage. He’d learn that lawmakers in Arizona and other states have already backed off passing more xenophobic laws. And he’d understand just how dependent Georgia’s biggest industries are on cheap migrant labor. But nothing beats gettin’ yer bill passed, huh?
THE THIS SHOULD GET ME SOME SKYMILES AWARD
Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla
Delta is doing pret-ty well for itself. When the Atlanta-based airline hit financial turbulence in 2005 and filed for bankruptcy, legislators came to its aid by approving a temporary tax break on jet fuel. Despite the fact that Delta has recovered nicely — even absorbing Northwest Airlines to become the world’s largest passenger carrier — Roberts saw fit to push a two-year extension of the tax break through the House. You heard right: A company that racked up $593 million in profits last year would get a $20 million exemption in the upcoming fiscal year and $10 million the next, most of which would come out of the pockets of Delta’s home county of Clayton, a Democratic stronghold that claims it would lose $26 million in annual tax revenue if the measure goes through. Roberts defended the move as an effort to keep Georgia’s largest private employer from leaving the state. Not that they said they were going anywhere.
THE DANKE SCHOEN, LOBBYISTS! AWARD
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge
While you spent last Thanksgiving cooking Spam on a hot plate, Ralston, his family, his chief of staff and the staffer’s wife were giving thanks to a D.C. consulting firm for treating them all to a $17,000, week-long trip to Germany. The lavish outing, which constituted the largest single lobbyist expenditure since at least 2005, was purely educational, of course. Ralston says he learned much about how European countries have merged rail transit with roads and commerce. Thanksgiving was the only time he was available, he claims, and, really, can we begrudge him wanting to spend the holiday with his family? Actually, we can. It’s also worth noting that, just last year, Ralston softened a House ethics package by removing a limit on lobbyist spending.
THE MR. NATIONAL EMBARRASSMENT AWARD
Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Crazytown
Any argument in favor of stripping East Cobb residents of their voting privileges should begin with these two words: Bobby Franklin.
The chairman of the House’s lunatic caucus since 1997 — yes, he’s managed to keep his seat since Titanic premiered in theaters — Franklin is known for zealously crusading against women’s rights, gay rights, public education and logic. This year, however, he managed to outdo himself.
First, he introduced a bill to require all state transactions be conducted in gold or silver coins. Then, he wanted to get rid of driver’s licenses because, according to Franklin, driving is an “inalienable right.” (When asked how ID-less drivers could be identified, he replied, “Why do you need to know who’s who?”) But the national press really took notice of Franklin’s latest attempt to criminalize abortion, er, we mean prenatal murder, with a bill suggesting women could be prosecuted if they miscarried but couldn’t prove it was an accident.
When he wasn’t introducing kooky legislation, Franklin was busy running off at the mouth, equating gays with “unrepentant drug dealers” and comparing abortion doctors to Muammar Qaddafi.
Luckily, Franklin’s colleagues appear to take him about as seriously as the rest of us: Of the 40 bills and resolutions he introduced this year, only one — a gimme resolution to honor the granddaughter of a Civil War vet — got as far as a vote.
THE I’M NOT ISLAMOPHOBIC, BUT MUSLIMS ARE OUT TO GET US AWARD
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven
If a Muslim scare is sweeping the nation, you can be damn sure it’s gonna visit Georgia. But you might be surprised at who’s fanning the flames. Only four years after switching parties, the DeKalb Republican got hold of the GOP playbook this session and, joining reactionary lawmakers in a dozen other states, introduced a bill to prohibit Sharia law — the religious law of Islam — from being used in Georgia courts. In addition to concerns that the bill would violate federal law and be gratuitously insulting to Muslims, there’s also the fact that it’s totally unnecessary. Even Jacobs, an attorney, had to concede to the Daily Report that he wasn’t aware of an instance where a Georgia judge had ever been asked to apply Sharia law.
THE IT’S NOT MILLER TIME TILL I SAY IT IS! AWARD
Sen. David Shafer, R-Lilburn
Although Bible-beaters get credit for blocking Sunday alcohol sales in past years, this session they received an attempted assist from Shafer, a media-savvy jester who approaches every policy issue through the prism of his own political ambitions. As chairman of the Senate committee handling Sunday sales legislation in 2010, Shafer was sitting pretty: The longer he delayed a vote, the more campaign manna he pocketed from both the liquor lobby and Christian conservatives. This year, however, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle sent the bill to a different committee so the Gwinnett Republican couldn’t continue his lucrative dithering. On the day the Sunday sales bill finally hit the Senate floor, Shafer proposed a seemingly benign amendment that, under semi-obscure parliamentary rules, would’ve sent the bill back to committee, effectively shelving it for the year. Fortunately, the scheme was recognized and the amendment defeated. Ironic, isn’t it, that the honorary chairman-for-life of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Georgia, a free-market-and-personal-freedom advocacy group, would go to such lengths to deny voters the chance to decide for themselves whether they can buy a six-pack on the Sabbath?
THE WELL, WHEN I WAS A JUDGE ... AWARD
Sen. William Ligon Jr., R-Waverly
It was très trendy under the Gold Dome this year to find fun, new, shamelessly iniquitous ways to sock it to illegal immigrants. Ligon joined in with a bill to make driving under the influence a felony for illegals, meaning first-time offenders could face fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 and imprisonment for one to five years. (Keep in mind that Gov. Deal is looking for ways to curb corrections spending by keeping people out of prisons.) Ligon’s rationale? Purely anecdotal. When he was a municipal court judge in Brunswick, Ligon says, 96 of the 172 people charged with DUI in his court one year were in the country illegally. When Sen. Emmanuel Jones, D-Decatur, asked for evidence that the measure makes sense statewide, Ligon couldn’t provide any. That was good enough for the Senate, which passed the bill 35-18. It later stalled in the House.
THE DON’T FUCK WITH MY FILAMENTS AWARD
Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville
This session, Loudermilk tried to safeguard Georgians’ right to choose: Will they equip their lamps with traditional incandescent bulbs or new-fangled compact fluorescent models? In response to a federal push to phase out energy-wasting old-school bulbs, the northwest Georgia Republican authored a bill to prevent the feds from regulating incandescent bulbs that are manufactured and used in Georgia. And he didn’t mince words about his distaste for the green technology in a press release: “I’ve used CFL bulbs in my house ... I can say with authority that the light level that these little things give off stinks.” While that legislation has yet to pass, Loudermilk managed to push through the Senate one bill to open abortion doctors to civil suits for violating state restrictions and another to allow folks to tote their shootin’ irons purt’near anywhere they like. As he explains: “It just makes no sense to me that someone who is licensed and legally allowed to carry a gun could not carry one into a restaurant, into a church or to a political event.” Tell that to Congresswoman Giffords.
THE YOU CAN’T BELIEVE THEM HAWAIIANS AWARD
Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross
Sure, the state of Hawaii released a copy of President Obama’s birth certificate. But Hatfield and his fellow birthers ain’t buying it. For the second year in a row, the Waycross Republican introduced legislation to require presidential candidates submit “adequate evidence” of their eligibility (i.e., a “first, original long-form birth certificate”) before they could appear on the Georgia ballot. Initially, he had more than 90 GOP co-signers, but as public scrutiny kicked in, they scrambled to scratch their names off the bill faster than a coyote can gnaw off its own leg. In desperation, Hatfield submitted a substitute exempting Obama. After that move earned him accusations of wimping out from birthers, Hatfield, who has a reputation for dickishness, turned peevish, complaining in an e-mail that appeared on a right wing blog: “I don’t need people on my own side throwing me under the bus! Thanks!”
THE I WANT TO RIDE MY BICYCLE AWARD
Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens
The eight Democratic lawmakers who joined the GOP after the November elections did so for a range of reasons: Some feared losing their seats when districts are redrawn; others yearned for more political clout; still others felt more ideological kinship with Republicans. But nearly all the party-switchers were rural conservatives, with the notable exception of McKillip, who hails from über-liberal Athens — and who’d just been elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus! Why did Dougie switch? He told a reporter that he’d been frustrated by his inability to pass a bill to allow local governments to let folks ride bicycles on sidewalks. So, how’d the turncoat thing work out for McKillip? Again, his bike bill never reached the House floor. And next year, the newly minted Republican will face re-election in one of Georgia’s bluest districts. Karma’s a bitch, dude.
THE FIX IT EVEN IF IT AIN’T BROKE AWARD
Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, and Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock
After several years of the Senate acting as adult to the House’s unruly child, this pair initiated a role reversal.
Only days after 1.4 million voters re-elected Casey Cagle as guv-lite, the duo stripped him of nearly all authority as presiding officer of the Senate. In his place was installed an eight-member “leadership” committee run by Williams and Rogers (although a member told CL the group was window-dressing, having met only twice).
Had the only victim been Cagle’s bruised ego, that’d be one thing. But the Senate soon descended into virtual anarchy, with Republicans unable to reach consensus on such issues as Sunday alcohol sales and tax reform. The leadership void has been so debilitating that a frustrated Speaker Ralston called for the Senate to end its “little experiment,” saying the shenanigans were coming “perilously close to ... harming the people of Georgia.”
But why be surprised at what Rogers, a former talk-radio host who made his name pushing anti-immigrant bills, and Williams, a holy roller with a Napoleon complex, hath wrought? Rogers is currently trying to dodge a lawsuit over a loan default on a run-down motel he co-owned. And Williams was outed by the AJC for backing a bill seemingly tailored to benefit a company whose lobbyist is tight with Williams’ political consultant.
Um, can we put Casey back in charge now?
THE WHEN I CALLED YOU THE GRAND WIZARD, I MISTOOK YOU FOR HARRY POTTER AWARD
Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon
The embattled chief Dem is prone to theatrics, from wielding bottles of booze at the lectern to projecting photos of colleagues draped in Confederate flags. But Brown’s creative oratorical skills failed him last December as he discussed the post-election Democratic exodus to the GOP on Macon TV. When Brown quipped that one party-switcher needed to keep his “white sheets” for “the midnight meeting,” even Uga VIII naturally assumed Brown had equated joining the Republican Party with membership in the KKK. But rather than apologize, Brown staged a press conference a few days later in which he dissed critics for misconstruing his accusations of racism and then compounded the insult by spinning some malarkey about his comment being a reference to Republicans’ recent sex scandals. Get it? Sheets, bed, affairs with lobbyists ... whatevs. The event ended with class when one of the senator’s supporters assaulted a photographer.