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Ethics board members making political contributions

ATLANTA (AP) -- Members of Georgia's ethics commission have made political contributions while serving on the panel, and one commissioner also works as a registered lobbyist, according to a review of state records by The Associated Press.

The commission regulates lobbyists and oversees campaign spending and complaints. Critics said the behavior -- while not illegal -- creates potential conflicts of interest on the panel whose conduct should be beyond reproach.

The chairman of the House Ethics Committee said legislation might be needed to curb commissioners' political activity.

"We need to take a very close look at this," state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said when told by the AP of the political donations and lobbying. He said he and John Crosby, chairman of the state Senate Ethics Committee, plan to meet with commissioners to discuss the matter.

A former chief executive of the state ethics commission said political activity by commissioners undermines public confidence.

"I've always believed that once you join the commission you should cease political activity," former commission executive secretary Rick Thompson said.

Three of the five ethics commissioners -- Kevin Abernethy, Josh Belinfante and Patrick Millsaps -- have made campaign contributions since joining the commission.

The two remaining commissioners, Kent Alexander and Hillary Stringfellow, have not made donations since joining the ethics commission. Each told the AP they had decided not to do so to avoid any appearance of bias.

Georgia law does contemplate some restrictions on political activity by ethics commissioners. Commissioners may not have held elected office or qualified to run for office within five years of their appointment to the panel. And they may not serve as an appointed or elected member of a political party while on the commission. But a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling also held that political contributions are a legally protected form of free speech, which could make any effort to formally restrict donations problematic.

Abernethy, appointed to the commission by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in August 2010, donated $250 to Cagle's re-election campaign on Oct. 29, the same day a watchdog filed an ethics complaint against Cagle, according to state records. Abernethy said the timing was coincidental and noted he recused himself from the Cagle matter, which the commission went on to dismiss.

Millsaps donated $2,000 to Georgia Group, a political action committee, which funneled money to candidates from both parties last year, including Gov. Nathan Deal. Deal is the focus of three campaign finance complaints pending before the commission.

Millsaps said he helped found the group, which registered as a PAC after he joined the commission. But Millsaps said he has no say in who the group decides to support.

And Millsaps said he plans to recuse himself from all commission action related to Deal because the Republican reappointed him to the commission earlier this year. As to whether he would recuse himself from any commission action related to any other candidate the group supported, he said he would take it on a case-by-case basis.

The most politically active member of the commission appears to be Belinfante, who had worked as a counsel to Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Belinfante has made five campaign contributions worth $1,455 since Perdue named him to the ethics panel in August 2010 -- three to the Republican Party.

And he said his affiliation as a Republican is well-known.

"Do I think it's OK to contribute? Sure. Do I do it often? No," Belinfante said.

The state GOP had a complaint pending against the Democratic Party of Georgia when Belinfante made his donation, which he said was an entrance fee to the state Republican Party convention. Belinfante said he also continues to serve on a committee of the Fulton County GOP chairs.

Belinfante told the AP that he didn't know the state GOP had a complaint before the commission and that he would have to weigh whether to recuse himself from the matter.

The complaint alleges Democrats improperly paid a lower rate for television advertising during last year's campaign for governor.

Belinfante also served as a campaign chairman for Sandy Springs City Council candidate Gabriel Sterling and earns some of his salary as a registered state lobbyist for the Hospital Corporation of America, the Georgia Pharmacy Association and United Health Care Services, Inc., according to records filed with the state.

Belinfante said he mainly works on legal matters for businesses that either do work with the state or are seeking to do work with the state -- including reviewing contracts and making appearances before state rulemaking bodies -- and that he registered "out of an abundance of caution."

State law does not ban Belinfante from the activity. But some say it should.

"I do think that it is a potential conflict of interest if not an actual conflict of interest," said Emmet Bondurant, an Atlanta lawyer who sits on the board of the watchdog group Common Cause-Georgia. "Clearly, people who are regulated by the ethics commission should not be sitting on it."

Julianne Thompson, head of Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, agreed.

"You should not be in a position where you are overseeing yourself," Thompson said. "That's a no-brainer."

But Belinfante argued that other state boards -- such as those that oversee nurses, barbers and cosmetologists -- are stocked with professionals governing themselves.

Belinfante said he would recuse himself from any case involving his clients, noting that he had done so in another ethics investigation into contributions made by State Mutual Insurance Co.

But former ethics commission staff counsel Yasha Heidari said that misses the point. The real power of the commission, he said, is to issue advisory opinions that affect lobbyist and other conduct on a broad scale.

"And this commission has a higher standard," Heidari said. "They oversee the conduct of our top elected officials."

In recent months, the commission has issued several opinions dealing with lobbying, including one in March that said individuals paid by a business who express an opinion to lawmakers on legislation that may benefit the business must register as lobbyists.

The ruling prompted the state Legislature to loosen the definition of lobbyist to make clear that citizens talking to lawmakers need not register.

And some warn against restricting all political activity by members of the commission.

Those tapped to serve on state boards and commissions are typically already steeped in the political process, know elected officials and are interested in government.

"If you prohibit folks from participating in the political process, you aren't going to have anyone left willing to serve on the commission," Millsaps said.