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YARBROUGH: State politics upended by one interview

Dale Russell is the best investigative reporter in Georgia, bar none. With a single interview, he has turned state politics on its head.

It was Russell, head of the investigative unit at WAGA-TV in Atlanta, along with producer Mindy Larcom, cameraman Mike Carlin and editor Travis Shields — "Be sure and tell your readers this was not a one man show," he said — who scored an exclusive interview with Susan Richardson, ex-wife of Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson. After her revelations about the speaker's affair with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist in 2006 and examples of his abuse of power, Richardson resigned from the Legislature a few days later. How the mighty have fallen.

I called Russell to see how he had gotten singular access to Ms. Richardson. He wouldn't tell me — I didn't expect him to. So I asked what he was feeling after his bombshell report.

"Tired and emotionally drained," he said. "It was an extremely difficult story because while it concerns the behavior of an elected official, it also involves a family with children. That made how we reported our story more challenging than normal."

The media, for the most part, were gracious in giving Russell and his team credit for their coup, but one widely read political newsletter with ties to his television competitor identified neither Russell nor WAGA as the source for their story, referring instead to "a TV reporter." Tacky.

I have many friends in the Legislature, but I doubt one of them can look me in the eye today and tell me truthfully that Ms. Richardson's comments about her husband's liaison with the female lobbyist was a surprise. It was the worst-kept secret on the planet, and the dilly-dallying was going on while the speaker was pushing a $300 million pipeline project for the company.

An ethics complaint filed against Richardson in 2007 by then-chairman of the Democratic Party Bobby Kahn was summarily dismissed by a panel of the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, consisting of Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah, now a Republican candidate for governor, Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, and Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newman.

Johnson said at the time of the dismissal: "To qualify for a conflict of interest, there has to be a quid pro quo. In this case, there is no ‘quid' and no ‘quo.'" With due deference to the senator, Sheila the Family Wonderdog could have sniffed out the "quid" and "quo" of this one and never missed her routine 22-hour nap. That explanation doesn't wash any better than a pig.

Tom Crawford, editor of Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in the state, says Eric Johnson will have some explaining to do on the campaign trail. I would proffer that Johnson can stick a fork in his candidacy unless he can come up with better responses than he has so far.

As for George Hooks, he was quoted in the Atlanta newspaper as saying, "To this day, I don't know the girl's name or anything about it." Why didn't he ask Kahn? Why didn't they interview the lobbyist and ask her? Does Hooks think we all fell off a turnip truck?

Crawford predicts a media feeding frenzy at the Capitol will result as reporters play catch-up. Good. Maybe somebody will take another look at the $100,000 tax break Gov. Sonny Perdue received retroactively from the General Assembly, courtesy of his attorney Larry O'Neal, R-Warner Robins, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

O'Neal's actions also engendered an ethics complaint that was dismissed by the Ethics Committee, which included — you guessed it — Eric Johnson and Glenn Richardson.

Gee, does anybody in state government understand why we don't trust them?

Uber-partisan Democrat Bobby Kahn isn't likely to invite me to lunch anytime soon, given my past criticisms of him, but he was on target with the Richardson ethics complaint. Good for him. And good for the investigative team at WAGA-TV for doing what the Legislature should have done and didn't.

As for my friends under the Gold Dome, I suggest you fasten your seat belts. Thanks to Dale Russell and a reenergized Capitol press corps, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

E-mail columnist Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net.