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GEORGIA CORRUPTION ON MY MIND

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Some historic reminiscences about corruption in my home state of Georgia

GEORGIA CORRUPTION ON MY MIND

by James Pickett Wesberry, Jr.

Former Georgia State Senator, Atlanta-Fulton County, 1963-67

Corruption in Georgia has been on my mind for as long as I can remember. And even though I’ve been out of my home state, and, in fact, my country, for many years I can’t seem to get it off my mind. I hope Georgia corruption is on your mind too. It is an old, sad song, nothing sweet about it.

Georgians have pioneered in many things…among them corruption. The “Great Yazoo Land Fraud” at the turn of the century 200 years ago was perhaps the monumental corruption case in Georgia and US history.  That was because the valuable real estate stolen and re-stolen consisted of most of present day Alabama and Mississippi. In that case almost the entire Georgia legislature was bribed to sell vast undeveloped acreage to corrupt land speculators at a cheap price. 

Around that same time in what was called the Pine Barrens speculation, Georgia officials made overlapping land grants, giving away three times more land than actually existed in the state. Land grants were supposed to be limited to 1,000 acres per individual but the state awarded multiple grants of 1,000 acres to some individuals.

Over fifty years ago Governor Marvin Griffin’s administration seemed to try to set the high water mark for shameful state corruption. Following him in office Governor Ernest Vandiver had the political courage to set up a highly professional investigatory unit to investigate corruption, mainly that of the Griffin administration. He created the Criminal Division of the State Law Department of Georgia. It consisted of an outstanding young Assistant Attorney General, who later became a state and federal judge, and three Georgia lawyers who had just retired from the FBI. Since the FBI uses both CPA’s and lawyers as investigators, the ex-FBI agents recommended adding a CPA to the team. Yours truly, then just getting started as a practicing CPA after working for two Atlanta firms, was selected. That great opportunity changed my life forever and corruption has been on my mind ever since.

The scandals disclosed and pursued by the Criminal Division made Georgians aware of the extent of corruption that had persisted in state government over the years. Pleas were bargained, convictions were few and Governor Griffin’s indicted brother was acquitted by a lenient jury. But the resultant publicity ended ex-Governor Griffin’s hopes of returning to the governor’s office. In the next democratic primary a young state senator, Carl Sanders, beat Griffin to obtain the nomination, then proverbially “tantamount to election” in one-party Georgia. Within weeks Federal courts ordered the Georgia Senate reapportioned and yours truly likewise gained nomination.

Sanders had campaigned strongly against government corruption but failed to follow through.  Once he was in the governor’s office he turned a deaf ear to the pleas to reconstitute the Criminal Division or a similar investigatory unit voiced by metro Atlanta citizens and the two Atlanta newspapers.  Thus a great opportunity to strengthen Georgia’s defenses against corruption with widespread citizen support was lost. 

As a new Senator in a new Senate, but with an old House, I was spectacularly unsuccessful in getting my own set of anti-corruption and accountability bills passed though I did have some luck in tacking amendments on to other bills. After the House was reapportioned my State Honesty Commission bill did finally pass the Senate, but it died in the House at the end of the legislative session that had started out by electing Lester Maddox governor in a joint session after no candidate had gained a majority vote. Following that session I resigned to join the USAID Alliance for Progress working to improve accountability in the country of Peru and thereafter continued living in, and/or working with Latin American countries for most of the remainder of my career.

Over the years as I viewed from afar the phenomenal conversion of Georgia’s one party system from Democrat to Republican I assumed that the new Republican officials would institute reforms to clean up corruption in the state. Sadly it began to appear that once the last coat of paint was lifted from the new Republicans they were just the same old Democrats. Combating corruption is an anathema to political parties because corruption is their “mother’s milk.”

As time passed I read or heard about State Ethics units being created and a State Inspector General being appointed and again my hopes were raised. But these agencies seem to have just been “painted on the wall” to use a Latin American expression.  They seem to have accomplished little being understaffed, underfunded and underpowered.

Now comes the State Integrity Investigation, a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International to measure the risk of corruption in every US state reporting that the State of Georgia ranks last among the 50 US states.  The report,” says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “scored states on 330 ’corruption risk indicators’ including open records law, campaign finance rules, and auditing and budgeting procedures. Georgia received an overall grade of 49 out of 100, an F.”  No surprise here, just more shame.

Now since I am far removed geographically, I certainly do not pretend to be fully up to date on Georgia government and its activities.  I do have a bit of experience combating corruption, having headed during the past two decades four international anti-corruption projects as I concluded my career and moved on to retirement. Those of us in the international anti-corruption field recognize that no matter what laws, regulations, investigatory agencies, codes of conduct or other measures may exist, there is one indispensable factor necessary to have any success whatsoever in fighting official corruption. That factor is political will.

If a nation does not have the political will to aggressively and continually combat corruption, then corruption will prevail…and that sadly is the present fate of many countries in our world today.

Lack of political will simply means that the politicians in control of the government insist upon leaving the back door to the public treasury open so that they are able to quietly continue to raid it without fear of serious investigation, prosecution, punishment and sometimes even discovery and disclosure.

Political will should be an inherent instinct within a dedicated public servant to close all avenues of possible temptation and abuse of public power for purposes of self-enrichment or malevolent abuse or theft of public funds or properties. This instinct should include vision to provide self-protection of the officials themselves against temptation to abuse their own offices or even to create the appearance of such abuse. Not many have that instinct.

Political will to hold fast against corruption is not very common on Planet Earth. Rarely do individual officials manifest it once they acquire public office. Political will usually must be forced upon them by unified pressure from those who elect them.

When a humiliatingly critical report like the recent State Integrity Investigation comes out the typical reaction of many officials is to denigrate it, criticize its preparation and try to make citizens feel that it is biased and being unfair to their “dedicated” public officials. This is the typical smokescreen that always appears…and it is pure smoke. Really sincere and serious officials will support serious reporting on vulnerability to corruption . And watching who supports and who criticizes such a report can tell citizens a lot about the character of their public officials.

Georgians should take this report seriously and use it as an opportunity to demand measures to clean up government. Happily Georgia has a strong professional State Auditor.  The problem, as the recent report points out, is that no one listens to him or takes action on his findings. A strong Ethics control agency is needed as well as a powerful, motivated and well staffed and funded Office of Inspector General.  And perhaps the old idea of a Criminal Division in the State Law Department is worth disinterring.

To do this Georgia citizens must unite to continually literally force their public officials through the pressure of public opinion to acquire the political will to combat corruption or be thrown out of office at the next election. And this pressure must be continuous year after year. One of America’s greatest authorities on corruption and long time mentor of mine, Dr. Gerald E. Caiden warns that

“…corruption is a particularly viral form of cancer. It is caught here and there but it reappears somewhere else as soon as vigilance is relaxed. It is not eliminated, just driven underground. The corrupt merely suspend their operations temporarily. It lingers, hovering always in the background for its next opportunity.”

There was one time when the citizens of Georgia arose in anger about corruption and forced legislators to gain strong political will. It was late in December of 1794 when the state legislature passed the first corrupt “Yazoo” law only to have it vetoed by the governor.  All the legislators voting for the bill but one had been bribed.  A revised bill labeled as a bill to appropriate “a part of the unallocated territory of this State” for the purpose of paying its militia and protecting its frontiers was passed and signed by the governor who had changed his mind on January 7, 1795. For $500,000 the State of Georgia had sold 35 million acres of land at 1 ½ cents per acre to corrupt land speculators. One writer called it “the greatest real estate deal in history.”

When the news got out Georgians were incensed and the citizens arose to defeat almost every one of the bribed legislators in the fall election.  Now with political will the new legislature on February 13, 1796 repealed the 1975 Act and nullified the sale. It then passed another law intended to “obliterate all official memory of the offensive deal. All documents concerned with the Yazoo sale were ordered excised from the state records.  These and the original copy of the act were burned at a ceremony in the public square of Louisville, the site of the legislative session.”

A historic plaque stands there today memorializing the event and a portrait of the public law burning was painted to further preserve the memory of the heroic Georgia citizen uprising against corruption. The rest of the story played out over several years in Washington with no such happy ending, but that is another story.

What Georgians can be proud to recall, and Georgia students should be required to study, is that the bribed corrupt legislators were voted out of office almost to the last crook and a new legislature charged with political will against corruption overturned their great fraud just over 200 years ago. It happened once. It can happen again. Political will can be achieved…but not easily. It is often only motivated by a major scandal like Yazoo…and it is too easily lost as time passes unless the fire behind it is kept burning. In Georgia corruption must remain always on our minds.

 (Note:  The final paragraphs above contain information from the book Yazoo, The Case of Fletcher v. Peck, by C. Peter Magrath.)                                                                                                                     April, 2012

James Pickett Wesberry, Jr., was elected three times to the Georgia Senate after it was ordered reapportioned in 1962.  He organized and was elected first Chairman of the new seven member Fulton County Senate Delegation. He was principal plaintiff in the landmark US Supreme Court case Wesberry v. Sanders (376US1) that ordered redistricting of the US House of Representatives based upon population in accordance with the “Great Compromise” agreed to at the Constitutional Convention resulting in the formation of the nation. That decision gave metro Atlanta two Congressional seats instead of one in accordance with its population and set the parameters for all future such cases across the country. For more information see “Why I Quit the Georgia Senate,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, Sunday, April 30, 1967. Wesberry, now retired, lives with his wife Lea in Quito, Ecuador. 

Web: www.jimwes.com  E-mail: jwesberry@aol.com

Whenever you find you are on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect

                     --- Mark Twain

We have never observed a great civilization with a population as old as the United States will have in the twenty-first century; we have never observed a great civilization that is as secular as we are apparently going to become; and we have had only half a century of experience with advanced welfare states...Charles Murray

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