Georgia ethics panel clears up years-long backlog of cases

Three years ago the state agency in charge of policing the ethics of Georgia politicians and lobbyists was a mess, with few staffers and a backlog of more than 150 cases, some dating to before the Great Recession.

This past week the agency’s executive secretary, Stefan Ritter, told the ethics commission that the backlog had essentially been eliminated.

There are still a few back cases the state is seeking to collect money on. And the long-running ethics complaints against former gubernatorial hopeful and Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine are still being fought in the courts.

But Ritter said a couple of consent agreements involving candidates with cases dating to 2010 and 2012 on Wednesday largely wrapped up the lengthy backlog of cases he and his staff have plowed through.

“The backlog is resolved,” Ritter told commission members. “Right now, except for the cases in collection, it is effectively zero. The staff has done a really good job over the past year.”

Actually, the staff has been whittling it down for almost three years, throwing out some old cases, making deals on others.

The commission by mid-2014 was in turmoil, having been plagued by three years of litigation, accusations of dirty dealing and back-stabbing among staff. Whistleblower lawsuits from former employees forced the state to pay out millions of dollars, with the most prominent case coming from a former executive director. For long periods of time, little in the way of handling ethics complaints was actually getting done.

Lawmakers had been inconsistent about funding the agency for years, but as of late money hasn’t been a problem. Gov. Nathan Deal and legislators raised the agency’s budget from $1.2 million in 2014 to about $3 million this year. In fact, Ritter said his agency will likely turn back $300,000 in unspent but budgeted funds to the state when the fiscal year ends June 30, largely because he doesn’t have any more space for staff that he needs to hire.

The case against Oxendine, which began in 2009 and was juiced up in 2015 with an amended filing, is one old complaint that could drag on for a while.

The Georgia Court of Appeals is expected to rule on it soon.

Oxendine has been the subject of accusations that he took illegal contributions and spent donor money on races he never ran.

Some of the initial charges against Oxendine were dismissed in 2015, but others remain. In June 2016, a Fulton County Superior Court judge rejected Oxendine’s bid to have all the remaining ethics charges dismissed. No matter how the Court of Appeals rules, the case could wind up before the Georgia Supreme Court.

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