Corruption fighter needed again in Georgia

Where is Michael Bowers now that we need him?

You remember Mike, don't you? For nearly two decades as attorney general, Bowers ranted and raved about corruption in state government. He publicly excoriated Democratic leaders for abusing power and using their offices for personal gain.

Bowers repeatedly and futilely demanded legislation to create a statewide grand jury with investigative powers. He finally became a Republican and ran for governor on a clean-up-government platform. Alas, an overactive libido derailed his campaign and finished his elective political career.

While Bowers was riding high as attorney general, he was regarded as the meanest man in state government, an unyielding champion of honesty and integrity. House Speaker Tom Murphy detested him. Three successive governors were scared to death of him.

"I would never ask Bowers for legal advice," a state agency manager once told me. "If I did, he would just take over my department and run it his way."

When Bowers announced he was leaving the post to go for governor, a collective sigh of relief swept through the Gold Dome. Gov. Zell Miller immediately appointed a low-key, nonabrasive lawyer, Thurbert Baker, to succeed Bowers.

Harangues for purity in elective office immediately ceased, though Baker turned out to be a competent, no-nonsense attorney general. He has been an outspoken advocate for openness in government in an era of unprecedented attempts to draw a secrecy curtain around the public's business.

Baker also stood up to Gov. Sonny Perdue when the governor tried to dilute the independence of the office - a move that seemed mysterious at the time but is becoming more explainable with each passing day of the current administration. Baker advised the governor that he could not continue to use the state's helicopters for private and political trips.

But Baker is not Bowers. As a black Democrat hanging on to his job in the midst of a sea of white Republicans, Baker understands that his tenure would suddenly end if he became a boat-rocking firebrand.

Meanwhile, Bowers, as a private attorney, has made a fortune suing various levels of government for reverse discrimination. He claims to be an adviser to Perdue on judicial appointments, though the governor is known to ignore Bowers' counsel on the selection of many judges.

As various shenanigans involving Perdue and legislators unfold, the need for another Bowers-type watchdog becomes increasingly evident.

Of course, when Perdue was elected, he grandly announced formation of an office of inspector general to ferret out wrongdoing. The office quickly morphed into an investigative agency that spent most of its time excusing the governor and his pals for various deeds. The first inspector general - a retired general - resigned quietly and faded from public view. The office also sank from sight.

In 2002, gubernatorial candidate Perdue followed Bowers' lead and promised to consider an investigative grand jury as a guard against corruption. After his election, legislation was drafted to create the grand jury, and Perdue's representatives met with Baker to iron out details. Then the whole idea vanished, never to be addressed again.

"Sonny must have gotten so busy with his real estate deals that he plum forgot about it," one Capitol observer speculates.

Still, one wonders how Bowers and an investigative grand jury might have reacted to the following:

• The Georgia General Assembly passes without question and with lightning speed a bill introduced by Perdue's personal lawyer, Rep. Larry O'Neal, that gives the governor a $100,000 tax deferment.

• House Speaker Glenn Richardson attempts to develop state-owned and presently off-limits St. Simons Island beach property.

• Republicans divert more than $1.7 million from the HOPE Scholarship fund to construct an elaborate Web site that is little more than a political campaign ad.

• State Sen. Nancy Schaefer, once a standard-bearer for Christian conservatives, throws in with the Hollywood-oriented Scientology religion to wage all-out war on mental health professionals in Georgia and elsewhere in the nation. Once a spiritual adviser to Zell Miller, Schaefer now preaches Scientology's favorite theme: Psychiatrists and other mental health specialists are ruining the minds of troubled citizens. Schaefer's campaign undermines a state mental health system already rated among the weakest in the nation.

That is merely a sample of a would-be "Mike Do" list just waiting to be tackled. So Mike, wherever you are, call us. We will provide you the other 93 items on the "do" list and issue an official press pardon for past transgressions.

Don't wait. There's much to be done. Georgia has missed you. If you can't answer the call to saddle up now, how about giving us the names of some people who can? A white horse waits.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at bshipp@bellsouth.net.

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