Four senators join new ethics panel

ATLANTA - The top-ranking member of the Georgia Senate on Monday named two Republicans and two Democrats to serve on a new committee that will examine conflict-of-interest complaints against legislators.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson appointed Sens. Seth Harp, R-Midland; Jack Hill, R-Reidsville; Michael Meyer von Bremen, D-Albany; and Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, to the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee.

The four will join Johnson, R-Savannah, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, and four yet-to-be-named House members on the panel, created by the General Assembly this year as part of an ethics overhaul.

"I wanted veteran legislators who are trusted by both sides of the aisle, who would not view this committee as a political playground,'' Johnson said.

As originally proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, this year's ethics bill would have empowered the State Ethics Commission to investigate conflicts of interest alleged against elected officials.

Democrats and good-government advocates complained when GOP legislative leaders replaced the commission in that role with the joint legislative panel. The legislative committee's critics argued that lawmakers wouldn't adequately police themselves.

But on Monday, Johnson said he has faith that the senators he is appointing will not hesitate to tackle complaints against their colleagues.

"They would not shy away from anything just because it might look awkward,'' he said.

Meyer von Bremen, a former chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, said he would prefer to have at least one non-legislator on the new panel to give it a greater sense of independence.

He noted that a special committee he served on that heard ethics charges against former Sen. Van Streat, D-Nicholls, included a retired state Supreme Court justice.

"I am willing to serve (on the new committee),'' Meyer von Bremen said. "(But) I would hope that, as we progress, we will look for improvements to make it better.''

The new committee's jurisdiction will be limited to complaints involving legislators or members of their staffs.

Johnson and Richardson will be the panel's co-chairmen, Johnson to oversee cases involving House members and Richardson to handle complaints against senators.

Johnson said any sanctions the joint committee recommends would be referred to the ethics committee in the affected lawmaker's legislative chamber.