Invitation To Corruption
They said they’d do it differently. For years, Georgia Republicans pledged that when they took control of state government they would clean up the stench of corruption emanating from the good ol’ boy network that Democrats had developed during 130 years of one-party rule.
Did they really mean it? Maybe not, if you judge by some of the bills that came roaring out of the recent General Assembly session. Let’s take a look at some of them.
HB 340 allows public colleges and their fund-raising foundations to keep secret the names of private donors and the amount of money they give. Does it really matter if the identity of college contributors is kept secret? Yes, it does.
There are many corporations that donate money to a university’s foundation and then sign a lucrative contract with that same institution. To cite one example, a leading manufacturer of personal computers gave Georgia Tech almost $100,000 in charitable donations during the same period when the company sold Tech more than $20 million in computer equipment. There are dozens – even hundreds – of other companies in similar situations.
This does not mean there is always a quid pro quo between corporate giving and the flow of public dollars back to these companies, but the possibility of such temptation is always there. Under HB 340, however, it will be difficult to find out about those temptations because the names of college contributors would be closed to public scrutiny. There’s an exemption for some business transactions, but others can remain legally hidden.
Big-money college donors, who will now remain anonymous, have sometimes tried to remove a college president (as we saw with UGA’s Michael Adams) or have tried to install a business or political friend in a key academic position (as has happened in other states). The secrecy that HB 340 will allow is an invitation to corruption.
HB 437 would also hide public information from taxpayers that until now was available under the open records law. This bill allows state and local governments to keep secret all personal information about public employees. This is an especially dangerous piece of legislation because of the long history of nepotism and related corruption that has plagued all levels of Georgia government.
Anyone who has lived in a small community has known a sheriff or county commissioner who used his office to provide tax-paid jobs for supporters, cronies and relatives. Under HB 437, local reformers and newspaper editors will have a hard time finding out who these people are, because information about them will be locked away from public view. That’s another invitation to corruption.
HB 218 did not pass this session, but Gov. Sonny Perdue indicated he will support it next year. This is the bill that would allow governmental industry recruiters to hide information about their negotiations from the media until a deal has been signed. This potentially means a Georgia citizen could wake up one morning and find out that an agreement has been finalized for a Wal-Mart to be built in his neighborhood or a hog farm to be located on adjacent property – and it will be too late for him to do anything about it.
The argument for passing these bills is that they protect the privacy of individuals. That’s all well and good but for the fact that in each case the expenditure of public funds is involved – the tax dollars that come out of your pocket and my pocket and the pockets of millions of Georgians.
If government is taking money out of our pockets, then taxpayers have a right to know how it’s being spent, and on whom. If government is going to make a sweetheart deal to locate a business or industry down the road from someone, that person has a right to at least be warned about it before the final contract is signed. Those rights outweigh any claim to privacy.
If Perdue signs HB 340 and HB 437 into law – and he is expected to – then he will be putting Georgia in the same position he complained about so much when he was challenging Roy Barnes. By closing the door to the scrutiny of public records, he will be making government less transparent and opening the door wide to corruption as pervasive as that of the good ol’ boy network that the Democrats maintained for so long.
Tom Crawford, editor of the Capitolimpact.com news service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.