Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sonny Perdue, State Ethics, And The Firing of Teddy Lee

If only we had known then what we know now. From the AJC, January 6, 2006:

Teddy Lee was never beloved by the General Assembly. As executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, Lee had the job of investigating lawmakers accused of taking freebies from lobbyists or abusing their positions for personal gain.

Despite a hostile Legislature and a bare-bones budget, Lee served with distinction under four governors. On Wednesday, his tenure ended when the Ethics Commission voted 4 to 1 to fire him.

Derided as a ghost of Democratic regimes past, Lee was on borrowed time in Gov. Sonny Perdue's Republican administration. When Perdue was elected four years ago, he tried to force Lee out, but Lee refused, believing that resigning would undermine everything the commission represented: ethical, transparent and honest government.

Lee also believed that no elected official or political party was above the law. That's why the Ethics Commission sanctioned both Perdue and DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, a Democrat, for campaign donation violations last year. Because Lee treated Democrats and Republicans alike and could not be denounced as partisan, Perdue had to plot his ouster in the shadows so the decision appeared to come from the commission alone.

But make no mistake, Lee's departure clearly reflects Perdue's wishes. Although it's true that the commission hires the executive secretary, the governor appoints the commission.

What's disappointing is that Perdue is supposed to be the ethics governor, at least according to the press releases his office pumps out with regularity. In support of that contention, Perdue points to the new ethics law that goes into effect Monday.

While the law prohibits legislators from immediately returning to the Capitol as lobbyists and increases fines for ethics violations, it doesn't limit gifts to lawmakers. The worst aspect of the bill may be a self-policing provision that creates a House-Senate ethics committee to determine ethical breaches by colleagues --- which is like leaving the fate of highway speeders up to a panel of NASCAR drivers.

Perdue and the GOP leadership hail the law as proof that a higher ethical bar has been erected in the Statehouse under their tenancy. Lee's firing suggests that if the bar was raised, it was to allow more political skullduggery to slip through unnoticed.


Sonny Perdue, wishing to be known as "the ethics governor" came into office in 2003 and shook things up. He began appointing new commission members, had his minions pass new ethics legislation. And then he targeted the State Ethics Commission's longtime executive secretary, Teddy Lee. As it turned out, Perdue's spiel about ethics was nothing but a smoke screen. In 2005, he became the first sitting governor in Georgia history to be fined for an ethics violation.

Teddy Lee wasn't popular with lawmakers because he made sure that many of them were penalized for their ethics violations. And when they didn't technically break the law, he went public and let the citizens of Georgia know when they broke the spirit of the law. Each legislative session, Teddy pushed to have new legislation introduced to clean up existing law with loopholes that were being taken advantage of. Needless to say, his efforts weren't always successful. But if his work didn't earn him a lot of friends, it earned him a lifetime of respect from those who played by the rules.

When Teddy Lee was on the job, guess what one of the very first assignments was when taking a job in an election official's office? You had to learn who this man was, and recognize him on the spot. Your job might depend on it one day. In some counties, his picture was probably posted on some back office wall like a wanted criminal in a post office. When he got a phone call from a concerned citizen about an election official not allowing him/her to see a financial disclosure, Teddy was never one to pick up a phone. He would make the drive to the offending office unannounced and unintroduced and ask to see the same public documents. If he was told no, the person he was dealing with was given a chance to correct themselves. But if they didn't, he'd pull out his badge and teach them a lesson not to be forgotten right on the spot.

Teddy was effective. He got things done. And anything involving his eyes or his signature was done correctly. He wasn't a purposeful menace to anyone. In fact, to most people, Teddy was (and is) a well-mannered and charming person with a great sense of humor. He merely wanted to make sure that laws were being followed by everyone - regardless of position or party association. He was one person who truly didn't care about partisan politics as it related to his job.

I suppose that's why Perdue knew he couldn't count on Teddy. He wouldn't look the other way when he needed him to. That was confirmed when Perdue was fined. So, Teddy had to go. Perdue couldn't fire him directly. But he was able to stack the commission with Republicans who were willing to fire Teddy. They eventually did.

And Georgia suffers for it.

For a DPG rundown of Perdue's history with ethics, click here.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Sonny Did.