In Gwinnett County, it looks like “there’s a new sheriff in town”. He and his posse ride under the banner of gwinnettethics.org and it looks like the group takes ethics issues VERY seriously. But Gwinnett Ethics isn’t concerned only with holders of political office, it’s equally concerned with the self-proclaimed “watchdogs” who file groundless complaints against elected officials. According to the organization’s web site, “These self-proclaimed ‘watchdogs’ are doing nothing more than using ethics as a platform for political attacks. In so doing, they needlessly consume time and money, and frequently hurt innocent people.
“While the concept of an ‘ethics watchdog’ is a noble one, some watchdogs are anything but. They are frequently more ethically challenged than the people they claim to be watching, and they file ethics complaints not because they have uncovered violations, but because they’re paid to do so by people who are trying to discredit a political opponent.”
Ethics complaints can be powerful political tools because the mere fact that a complaint has been filed casts a shadow of distrust over the target— even when such complaints are totally unfounded. One of the most obvious tip-offs that a complaint has no basis in fact, is the agency with which it is filed. As an example, some flea infested “watchdogs”, file civil complaints with agencies that only handle criminal actions. They do so because they know their complaints will be given no consideration and no follow-up, and consequently will not be exposed as being frivolous and baseless.
Another favorite tactic of for-hire complaint filers is to lodge a complaint with the Georgia Government and Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly known as the State Ethics Commission) because– again– they know that no action will be taken. It sounds ominous when someone states, “There has been a complaint filed with State Ethics Commission.” but that commission has authority ONLY over campaign finance matters (hence the commission’s current name). Consequently, filing a complaint that does not involve campaign financing with the “Ethics Commission”, is as pointless as filing a complaint with the Gwinnett Daily Post demanding that a retraction be printed about an article that ran in the Journal-Constitution– except that it may generate negative publicity about the intended target.
Personally, I applaud the efforts of the “new sheriff”. I welcome anyone who is truly concerned about maintaining the highest standards of ethics and transparency in government. And I think it’s equally important that the same standards be applied to government “watchdogs”. After all, no watchdog can do its job properly, when it’s suffering from fleas.
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