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Thurbert Baker ... and the battle for openness

In 2000, Thurbert Baker barely missed becoming Georgia's first black U.S. senator. If Zell Miller had said no to Gov. Roy Barnes' entreaty to accept a Senate appointment, Attorney General Baker was ready to go. Even before Miller was approached, Baker was the top choice of Barnes' closest advisers to take the seat left vacant by Sen. Paul Coverdell's death.

Whether Baker could have survived the ensuing special election is debatable. What is not in doubt: The political history of Georgia would have been different. Without Baker, Georgia taxpayers would not now have their most active champion of open government.

Miller, of course, is gone from the Senate. At 73, he is selling books and making speeches, all damning fellow Democrats.

Meanwhile, Baker, 52, has emerged as perhaps the most influential Democrat left on Capitol Square. The AG has already raised more than $800,000 for what he expects to be a determined and well-financed challenge in next year's election. Robert Highsmith, a former aide to Gov. Perdue, has been mentioned as a GOP candidate.

Despite Baker's extraordinary powers, he is retiring and publicly affable. Like his fiery predecessor Mike Bowers, though, the current AG has become the bane of the state's elite power brokers. With little fanfare last week, Baker ordered business leaders to make public the details of elaborate bids to lure the Super Bowl and NASCAR Hall of Fame to Georgia.

Both proposals, which have been kept under wraps, involve tens of millions of dollars in public funds. In addition to the Chamber of Commerce types, Baker directed his open-records order at Gov. Sonny Perdue and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Almost from the start as AG, Baker has been out front as a sunshine-in-government advocate. As the Perdue administration and the Legislature have sought repeatedly to go dark on official matters, Baker has emerged as Georgia's leading official opponent of secrecy.

He emphatically ordered the University of Georgia Foundation to stop violating the open-meetings and open-records laws. In one of its last official gatherings, the now-defunct board of trustees thumbed its nose at the AG and went into a private executive session.

On several fronts, Baker appears to be losing the battle for sunshine. Georgia government is steadily becoming a closed corporation.

Even as Baker demanded opening up the NASCAR and Super Bowl bids, Gov. Perdue held another closed-door briefing with state officials to outline public spending proposals involving billions of taxpayer dollars. Baker has been a thorn in the GOP governor's side throughout his tenure. In 2003, Gov. Perdue issued "a direct order" to the attorney general to drop the state's defense of a lawsuit brought against a redistricting plan passed by Democrats. When Baker refused, Purdue sued him and lost in a historic state Supreme Court case. The high court ruled that the AG had ultimate and independent control of the state's legal matters. The governor denounced the court and promised to get even.

Now, as his re-election approaches, Baker's desk is beginning to pile up with issues transcending government openness and the powers of office.

He has been asked to investigate:

n Allegations that Corrections Commissioner James Donald shook down prison-system contractors to fund an elaborate conference of corrections officials.

n Conflicts in sworn statements by Perdue and other state officials about whether the governor discussed State Patrol personnel matters with subordinates. The apparently contradictory depositions were made in connection with a lawsuit brought by a former state patrolman alleging political interference in the administration of the State Patrol.

n Former Gov. Miller's decision to pocket more than $112,000 from the governor's mansion's entertainment fund - monies to which Miller contends he was entitled, but nevertheless says he intends to pay back.

Ironically, Baker owes his political career to Miller, who appointed him House leader floor leader and, in 1997, named him to succeed Bowers, who had resigned as AG.

It also has been suggested that Baker take an active role in investigating security lapses involving sheriff's deputies in the Fulton County murder spree of jail inmate Brian Nichols.

In the coming months, how Baker, a reticent man who seldom flexes his official muscle, conducts himself in these delicate matters may give us a clue to his political future.

Observers note that AG Bowers, always careful to preserve his tough-guy image, would have made headlines where Baker has chosen to remain silent. Many consider Bowers the activist prototype of an effective attorney general who generally kept state policy makers nervous - and honest. Whether the very different Baker model can ever have the same effect is yet to be tested.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.