AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia's Senator Ethics takes aim at money from big state contractors

Georgia Senate Judiciary Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, may have as many enemies at the Capitol as any state lawmaker, in part because he has relentlessly pushed ethics bills and measures to change the way things are done at the statehouse.

Now he is taking aim at campaign contributions from companies and executives with companies who do billions of dollars worth of business with state government. Much of that money is going to statewide elected officials in his own party.

Senate Bill 394 would outlaw contributions from big contractors to elected officials involved in awarding contracts or candidates running for an office that awards contracts.

His bill comes after DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis was found guilty last year of trying to shake down Power and Energy Services, an Austell business, for a $2,500 campaign contribution and threatening to end its $250,000 contract with the county.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation last year found that over the past five years, Gov. Nathan Deal's campaigns and political action committees collected more than $1.8 million from about 90 of the state's biggest vendors or their executives and family members. Such contributions have been common for governors and other top statewide-elected officials for decades.

As an example, the AJC noted, in the midst of his heated re-election campaign, Deal flew out to Missouri for a fundraiser put on by executives Centene, a state contractor that has been paid nearly $4 billion over the past five years to provide health insurance to Medicaid and PeachCare recipients in Georgia.

Deal left Missouri with his campaign account fatter; Centene executives poured more than $40,000 into the Republican's re-election bid.

McKoon said he began looking at laws in other states pertaining to contractors and campaign donations and found that Georgia "is well behind the rest of the county.

"There is such a crisis of confidence in government," McKoon said. "And the optics alone of state officials running  for office taking money from people who are doing business with the state when they have a role to play in awarding those contracts ...  we don’t need to have that going on. I think we should set reasonable limitations."

There has long been a ban on campaign contributions by federal contractors to federal candidates. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld that prohibition last year.

The question is how close can you tie, say, a governor, to a contract one of his administration's agencies hands out?  The connection is more direct for the Secretary of State, Commissioner of Insurance, State School Superintendent or Labor Commissioner, who are elected and run state agencies.

And then there is the question of lawmakers, who approve funding for billions of dollars worth of contracts, often knowing which companies get the money.

McKoon, for instance, has received contributions from Centene, and Blue Cross and UnitedHealth, two of the big contractors for the State Health Benefi Plan, as well as United Health Services, which is paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year  for nursing and other elderly care services.

"Senate Bill 394 is currently drawn for statewide officials, but I am certainly amenable if we need it to be stronger," McKoon said. "I am definitely open to making it more robust than it is."

Cutting contributions to the governor and statewide elected officials is one thing. But lawmakers would say attacking their potential donors "has gone to meddling."

Lawmakers who file bills around or after the half-way point of a General Assembly session generally either want to send a message, make a statement, or give colleagues something to talk about or study over the interim.

As in the case of pretty much all of McKoon's ethics legislation, he's realistic about Senate Bill 394's chances in a General Assembly that: A) Doesn't like to tick off the governor; B) Doesn't want to threaten its own contribution pipeline and C) Doesn't particularly like any of the legislation McKoon files.

"I am hoping we get a hearing, that we at least get a conversation started," McKoon said. "I am going to be requesting a hearing on (SB) 394 right away."

We'll let you know if that hearing happens.

















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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.