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Wednesday, April 6, 2011 - 7:29am

Ethics Commission Lightens Lobbyists Disclosures

The state ethics commission says, lobbyists can spend undisclosed sums of money on most state employees.The decision Tuesday comes after high-speed rail advocates sent Georgia's House Speaker, his family and staff to Europe last year.

The commission said as long the workers don't have any say over vendors for state contracts, it's okay for lobbyists to spend money on state employees without disclosing it. Those employees could include the Governor's Chief of Staff.

State ethics officials say they don't have the power to change state law.

The commission's vice president Josh Belinfante said there's a legal loophole only lawmakers can close.

“Right now we don’t have that option," he said after the meeting. "The General Assembly decided that we should not, and I’m respectful of that. But what it means we have to interpret the statute very strictly, and we don’t have any discretion.”

Lawmakers and their family members, however, remain subject to disclosure rules.

William Perry with the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia said the opinion gives lobbyists unlimited access to people close to elected officials.

“What that does in essence is take away the public’s right to know how a lobbyist is trying to influence members of someone’s staff," Perry said after the commission voted. "So take the governor’s office. His chief of staff can be taken out by lobbyists, wined and dined, influenced for specific pieces of legislation, and that no longer has to be reported."

Perry says, lobbyists spent $200,000 on gifts for legislative staff members during the first three months of the year. He said that indicates lobbyists genuinely view staffmembers as people they want to influence.

A request for an opinion came to the commission after it emerged in news reports that lobbyists for high-speed rail travel had paid for a Thanksgiving trip to Europe for House Speaker David Ralston, his family and his staff last year.

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