Friday, December 18, 2009

Scandals' Domino Effect Shakes Ga. GOP Leaders

What's going on at the Georgia Statehouse these days?

Associated Press Writer

The House speaker, who tried to kill himself by swallowing pills, stepped down amid allegations of an affair with a lobbyist. A lawmaker who wants to succeed him admits that the IRS investigated tax legislation he sponsored that saved the governor thousands of dollars. And a lawsuit criticizes the state's insurance commissioner - himself a gubernatorial hopeful - for taking a trip to the Oscars on a campaign contributor's tab.

Ethics allegations are nothing new at the Georgia Capitol, where money, power and politics mingle. But the flood of recent scandals among the state's Republican leaders has left the Peach State's image bruised.

"It's a crisis for the Republican party in this state," said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.

Georgia has voted reliably Republican in recent years, but Abramowitz said the recent mess might give Democrats a fighting chance in next year's battle for governor.

"It's embarrassing nationally," Georgia House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter said Wednesday.

Democrats have seized on ethics, taking the wraps off new legislation on Wednesday to strengthen laws that govern state legislators' conduct.

The domino effect shaking the state's conservative political establishment began with the speaker's resignation last month. Glenn Richardson is set to step down Jan 1. after allegations by his ex-wife that he had an affair with a lobbyist.

His No. 2, speaker pro tem Mark Burkhalter, said he was eager to take over the reins as speaker. Then three days later, with only the vaguest of explanations about other career opportunities, he said he wouldn't seek the post, one of the most powerful in Georgia politics. He has disappeared since, refusing to explain his decision further.

Allegations of wrongdoing have also clouded the race for governor.

U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal - a Republican candidate for governor - is facing an inquiry by two congressional ethics panels after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a lucrative deal his company had with the state.

On Wednesday, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine - another GOP gubernatorial hopeful - was defending himself after a lawsuit surfaced claiming he took trips bankrolled by a campaign contributor who asked for help in an insurance dispute.

The federal lawsuit involves a dispute over investments in an insurance company. The company alleges Dr. Jeffrey Gallups shelled out almost $2,000 in 2007 for Oxendine and his wife to attend the Oscars, according to court documents.

Gallups is involved in a lawsuit against the Indianapolis Life Insurance Company, which Oxendine's office is investigating.

Oxendine denied any wrongdoing and said he'd broken no law in taking personal trips with a friend. He said he had reimbursed Gallups for the trips, although he refused to provide proof.

"What you have here is an insurance company accused of cheating people, and they are trying to do whatever they can to get at me," Oxendine told The Associated Press.

He said his office found wrongdoing by the company after an investigation prompted in part by complaints from Gallups.

Indianapolis Life Insurance Spokeswoman Catherine Huggins said the company "strongly disagrees" with Oxendine's assertions and said it is reviewing his report on the company's market conduct.

The fallout continues in the Georgia House. A lawmaker considered a leading candidate to replace Richardson has been forced to explain old ethics problems that also ensnared the governor.

In an e-mail to the House GOP caucus, state Rep. Larry O'Neal - who had worked as Gov. Sonny Perdue's lawyer while serving in the House - revealed on Wednesday that the IRS investigated a tax break that saved Gov. Sonny Perdue about $100,000 on a 2004 Florida land deal. O'Neal said he was exonerated by the probe and that the governor didn't have to pay additional taxes.

The allegations had dogged Perdue during the 2006 race for governor.

And state Rep. Mark Butler came under fire after e-mails surfaced suggesting he complained to University of West Georgia officials after they fired his ex-girlfriend, Erin Henderson, a lobbyist for the school.

Her firing over the summer prompted a phone call with Butler, according to Danielle Tackett, a secretary to the vice president of university advancement Michael Ruffner.

"He said Dr. Ruffner had just pissed off the whole political party firing Erin. This includes Speaker of the House, Rules Chairman and Senate," Tackett wrote of the conversation with Butler.

"(H)e was very vocal with his feelings in expressing his anger at the situation."

Butler denied he had tried to influence the school and said he believed his words may have been misconstrued.