2005-02-23 / Editorials

Bill Shipp ‘TRUST US’

Bill Shipp

"A government that is allowed to create its own reality is a government that can get away with anything." — Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

Pitts referred to the Bush administration in Washington. He could have been speaking as easily about Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Legislature in Atlanta.

Marching in lockstep, Gov. Perdue and his General Assembly have set out to create what Perdue calls New Georgia. If they are successful, the reality of New Georgia will be far different from the old.

State government will be veiled in secrecy. Truth-telling will become optional. Protecting the public will take a backseat to shielding officialdom.

Perdue and the Legislature are working overtime to institutionalize secrecy and blot out transparency.


• With the backing of Perdue and some of the business community, HB 218 casts a cloak of secrecy over every aspect of recruiting new industry for Georgia. You could wind up with a fertilizer factory next door – one that is exempt from the same state and local taxes you are required to pay – and never learn of the plant until it becomes reality. And a tax-paid local county attorney also might be representing a developer. You would never know.

• Another bill would make secret the names of contributors to the University System of Georgia. An alumnus could give $1 million to Bulldog interests and receive a $2 million building contract from UGA. We the People would never know the conflict existed. The identity of the contributor-contractor would be sealed.

• Still another measure aims to keep confidential the names and addresses of public employees to "protect" them from labor-union organizers – and from prying reporters.

• The Senate has put on hold the infamous Senate Bill 5, which would have allowed the state to seize property for private developers’ use – and turn public highways into for-profit toll roads, with no public notice or competitive bids.

Observers say important elements of that measure may survive as amendments to other seemingly innocuous bills. We may not learn of their existence until weeks after the Legislature has adjourned.

Even the governor’s blue-ribbon New Georgia Commission, charged with reorganizing state government at a cost of millions to the taxpayer, is exempt from the Open Meetings and Open Records Act.

The growing sheaf of secrecy bills has left us mesmerized. While we gaped in disbelief at the mountain of go-dark legislation, another new reality for New Georgia popped up – in our court system.

As part of a lawsuit filed in Fulton Superior Court by a reputed State Patrol whistle-blower, Gov. Perdue swore in a deposition that he had never requested the transfer of any member of the governor’s State Patrol security detail – either before or after one of his daughters became involved romantically with one of the governor’s bodyguards.

However, Jim Lientz, Perdue’s chief operating officer, and George Ellis, the recently retired State Patrol chief, both swore that Perdue asked them to remove at least one patrolman, Stewart Hicks, as head of the governor’s security detail. Ellis said Perdue pointedly asked that Hicks be appointed head of a law enforcement training center – though Hicks had not applied for the job and was not qualified to fill it. (He did not have a college degree.)

In the days of Richard Nixon, a comparably minor incident, shrugged off as a "third-rate burglary," blossomed into Watergate.

In the Clinton administration, a sexual peccadillo ("I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.") escalated into grounds for presidential impeachment.

So what happens back here in Georgia when at least one of three responsible state officials (including the governor) turns up with egg on his face in sworn testimony that is denied, also under oath, by others?

Apparently nothing. The office of Attorney General Thurbert Baker is defending the governor in the State Patrol case and can’t very well launch an investigation into whether Perdue engaged in perjury.

Perdue’s handpicked inspector general, James E. Sehorn, has become so politicized as an apologist for the governor that he is virtually useless in such situations.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is the obvious official to sort out the facts. But he has gone from one fiasco to another in mishandled prosecutions. Some time ago, however, Howard announced he had organized a "public corruptions" unit to investigate the appearance of wrongdoing in state and local government. Putting the corruptions investigators to work on the Perdue matter might help restore public confidence in Howard’s performance.

Meanwhile, Gov. Perdue urges us not to panic in the face of growing secrecy in government. We should trust our elected officials to do the right thing, the governor said, just as the public learned of the sworn depositions contradicting the governor’s under-oath testimony.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160 or e-mail shipp1@bellsouth.net.

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