Ethics issues dominate Georgia governor's race

Sonny Perdue and Mark Taylor have very different visions of where they want to take Georgia during the next four years.

But instead of airing the candidates' disagreements on major issues such as education, health care, jobs and the environment, the first weeks of the gubernatorial campaign following primary season have been dominated by back-and-forth charges of ethical missteps by the Republican governor seeking a second term and the Democratic lieutenant governor looking to move up.

While the allegations coming out of both camps potentially involve serious wrongdoing, it's an open question whether voters care.

"The research shows that ethics is not a big issue for most voters,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "They figure it has no impact on what kind of job they'll do.''

Democrats have jumped on news reports detailing Perdue's purchase of 20 acres of undeveloped land near Florida's Walt Disney World in 2004 from a Georgia developer and Republican contributor he had appointed to the state Board of Economic Development a year earlier.

Subsequent media accounts revealed that the governor signed legislation last year allowing Georgians to defer paying capital gains taxes on certain sales of property after he had sold a piece of land in Houston County. He was able to collect on the tax break because the provision was made retroactive.

"Georgians need to know why their governor gets a tax cut and they don't,'' said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin. "Georgians need to know whether their governor sold the influence of his office to a developer.''

Just a day before the Perdue land deal story broke, Republicans accused Taylor of accepting $35,000 in illegal campaign contributions from a Columbus car dealer last December.

While the money came in separate checks from various dealerships owned by Carl Gregory, GOP allies of the governor said the State Ethics Commission treats donations from "affiliated companies'' as a single contribution. That would put the money given to Taylor well above the $5,000 legal limit.

"I've never seen as blatant a violation of Ethics Commission rules,'' said former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers. "This could be corrected by returning the money.''

Looking beyond the hyperbolic rhetoric being thrown out by the parties, however, nothing has emerged from the governor's land deal or tax break that proves criminal misconduct or even corrupt intentions.

It's not like the infamous Abscam scandal of 1981, where members of Congress were caught on tape accepting bribes from undercover investigators posing as Arab businessmen.

Or like the Washington lobbying scandal that torpedoed Ralph Reed's bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in Georgia. Most damaging to Reed were the e-mails linking him with once-powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to defrauding clients.

"What really can hurt you (with voters) is clear-cut evidence,'' Bullock said.

At the same time, the $35,000 Taylor is accused of accepting in violation of the law against "bundling'' of campaign contributions pales against the millions he and Perdue will have spent by Election Day in November.

"If you get a few thousand dollars you shouldn't have, voters may shrug their shoulders,'' Bullock said.

While the ethics charges and countercharges being made by the Perdue and Taylor camps are likely to play a starring role in their campaign ads this fall, the two candidates will certainly get around to debating key policy issues at some point.

Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said what really hurts about the "gotcha'' politics Perdue and Taylor are playing is that it avoids a discussion of real ethics reform, like rolling back campaign contribution limits or imposing a gift ban on lobbyists.

"The governor and lieutenant governor would better serve the people of Georgia by telling us how they would lead us toward new reform that would make all public servants more responsive to the people and less connected to big money interests, whether they be land developers or auto dealership owners,'' Bozarth said in a prepared statement.

"Most public servants would welcome ... higher standards. The public certainly would.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.