Rep. Joe Wilkinson clashed with groups looking to reform the state’s ethics laws over remarks he made at a
Jan. 24 luncheon for Fulton County legislators.
House Speaker David Ralston in
January introduced a bill that would be “a complete ban on lobbyists spending on individual members of the general assembly, a complete ban on gifts, tickets to athletic events, concerts and other entertainment events.”
Wilkinson chairs the House Ethics Committee and said the state has some of the strongest ethics laws in the country and that journalistic bias is responsible for the momentum behind the proposal.
During the luncheon Wilkinson, R-Atlanta, drew comparisons to believing in the Easter Bunny when talking about whether the state needs to strengthen its ethics laws.
“I know Santa Claus is real, but I’ve had some doubts about the Easter Bunny, so why don’t I say the Easter Bunny is real so I’ll feel better,” Wilkinson said during the luncheon. “I mean this is why we we’re working very carefully to be substantive, not an Easter Bunny- type thing.”
Representatives of two groups pushing for reforms – Common Cause Georgia and the League of Women Voters of Georgia – said Wilkinson’s comments show he is out of touch with residents.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, called Wilkinson’s remarks “flabbergasting.”
“He’s definitely towing the party line and it’s something I think shows how completely out of touch he is,” Perry said. “The problem is people who act in an ethical manner don’t fear raising ethical standards.”
Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said the reforms are about restoring trust and transparency.
“That’s why we need ethics reform,” Poythress said. “It’s not about making us feel better, it’s about building trust, and trust is the foundation of democracy. Chairman Wilkinson should really get fairy tales off of his mind and listen to the voices of Georgians that spoke in the last election, 82 percent saying that they wanted ethics reform.”
The groups pushing for reform want to limit what lobbyists spend on state legislators and pass laws addressing conflicts of interest.
Wilkinson’s remarks drew the attention of Jim Walls, editor of the Atlanta Unfiltered Blog. Walls helped the Center for Public Integrity produce a 2012 report that found Georgia ranked last among all 50 states when it comes to transparency.
Until Reporter Newspapers posted the video, Walls was unaware that Wilkinson commissioned a report to challenge the CPI report.
Wilkinson declined to provide a copy of the report to Reporter Newspapers. The state Legislature is exempt from the state’s Open Records Act.
“It is not a public report,” Wilkinson said. “It is something I used to try to do an appeal. The fact of the matter is, it’s moot now.”
Wilkinson said that he wants substantive reforms, not “feel good” legislation.
“My goal is far higher than that,” Wilkinson said. “It is to restore the public’s confidence in their elected officials.”