Gov. Nathan Deal’s executive order seems simple: Employees in Georgia’s executive branch should not accept gifts worth more than $25, particularly from lobbyists and vendors.
In reality, the policy is more complicated. Lobbyists have spent more than $25 on executive branch employees more than 150 times through June, totaling nearly $17,000. The tally is not exact — incomplete or vague records can make it difficult to determine who benefits from lobbyists’ gifts. And some agencies will reimburse lobbyists for gifts.
Several issues complicate the rule limiting gifts. The governor doesn’t control every employee in the executive branch. Voters elect an attorney general and statewide officials to run the departments of agriculture, insurance and labor. Those elected officials set their own rules for their employees. While there is occasional debate, most legal authorities agree those employees are exempt from Deal’s order.
Of the 120,000 employees in the executive branch, about 50,000 fall outside the governor’s jurisdiction, according to Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Deal.
The loopholes will narrow when a new state law takes effect Jan. 1. It generally prohibits lobbyists from spending more than $75 on state officials, with some exceptions.
Until then, it’s up to executive branch leaders to decide whether to set rules on lobbyist spending. Some have not. Last month, Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens and two of his high-ranking regulators accepted $100-per-head dinners and, in one case, a round of golf from a lobbyist representing the insurance industry. One of Hudgens’ staffers brought his wife and two daughters to the meals.
Hudgens said he didn’t set rules on lobbyist gifts when he entered office in 2011. Lobbyists have made multiple expenditures on Hudgens, buying items ranging from $5 in newspapers to $245 in lodging at an industry conference.
Hudgens said he thinks the executive order applies not to his employees but to the people Deal appoints and whose paychecks have his signature.
Hudgens said he now requires his employees to pay their entertainment expenses when traveling to industry meetings. He said his department also will start complying with the new law further restricting lobbyist spending before it officially takes effect.
Members of the State Transportation Board are elected by regional groups of state lawmakers, not Deal, and they say they’re exempt from his order. Board member Dana Lemon last month asked a Georgia Power lobbyist for $220 in Atlanta Braves baseball tickets for herself and three family members, according to financial reports. The electric utility has business dealings with the board.
Lemon said in an interview that she doesn’t do anything state lawmakers don’t do, and no ticket would influence her vote.
“I think that part of the responsibility that we have in this particular position is building relations and working together and collaboration,” she said. “And this is just one way Georgia Power supports the board it does business with.”
Some have adopted stricter policies. For example, Attorney General Sam Olens decided in December to refuse gifts worth more than $25, said his spokeswoman, Lauren Kane. Olens makes exceptions for government institutions and nonprofits that don’t conduct business with the state. Department policy forbids his attorneys from accepting gifts related to their jobs. For items that are impractical to return, such as food, attorneys are encouraged to share or donate to food pantries.
A statewide budget crunch sometimes encourages even Deal’s employees to accept lobbyist or outside money. In June, Department of Juvenile Justice Assistant Deputy Commissioner Diana Aspinwall received a $1,500 reimbursement from the Pew Charitable Trusts to travel and give a presentation about a state overhaul of juvenile justice laws.
Deal’s order states that the government prefers when agencies pay for the travel expenses of their employees rather than relying on outside funds. But employees can accept reimbursements from outside groups if the travel relates to their jobs.
The Juvenile Justice Department’s general counsel, Tracy Masters, serves as its ethics officer and permitted Aspinwall to accept the reimbursements, Masters said in a written statement. The trip would not otherwise have been possible given the agency’s budget constraints, she said.
Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy contributed to this report.
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