For the AJC
On his first day in office, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a lobbyist gift ban for
state employees, but 16 months later, dozens of officials have taken
thousands of dollars worth of tickets, meals and travel from special
Bob Andres, email@example.com
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Williams accepted $1,230 in meals, tickets and other gifts from lobbyists.
Executive branch officials under Deal’s authority took at least $25,000 in
lobbyists’ gifts since the order took effect in January 2011, according to
state records. The findings arise from a unique partnership in which a
reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution worked with Emory
University’s investigative journalism class to review compliance with the
Their joint investigation found that some senior officials appeared to have
close relationships with lobbyists. In one email exchange, for example, a
department commissioner told a lobbyist, “Keep this btwn you and me.”
The governor’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, argued that “we’ve had, for the
most part, strict adherence to the rules.” But in view of the AJC’s
findings, Robinson said, Deal has reminded department heads to follow the
rules. “He expects everyone to comply with the order,” he said.
Among the lobbyists’ gifts:
● More than $1,000 each for two executive branch department heads in meals
and other gifts from lobbyists representing state contractors. ● Nearly
$1,000 in catered lunches for members of a Medicaid drug review board from a
pharmaceutical company lobbyist, in advance of presentations by the company
for new drugs. ● More than $3,000 by insurance and manufacturing
lobbyists for out-of-town conferences attended by officials with the State
Board of Workers’ Compensation.
Deal’s executive order bans lobbying gifts in excess of $25 in the executive
branch and admonishes officials to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
But a closer look found a lot of gifts slipping between the cracks of what
sounds like an ironclad policy. The order does not cover Deal’s appointees
to state boards. And the people his order does cover sometimes violate it.
Ryan Teague, Deal’s executive counsel, noted that the governor has no
authority over departments headed by other elected officials, such as the
attorney general or the insurance commissioner. But he said that, as a
result of the AJC’s findings, Deal’s office is revising the order. Teague
said details of the revision are being worked out.
Executive orders have the force of law, and the order includes disciplinary
measures for violating it, including termination. In several cases,
officials paid the lobbyists back for the value of the gifts after being
contacted by the AJC.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said the
lobbyists’ gifts to people in the executive branch are “extremely
“It’s another instance where public officials lose the public’s trust when
they don’t follow the rules established for them,” he said.
Common Cause and other watchdog groups have pushed legislators to impose a
cap on the gifts they receive, but they have had little success. Executive
branch lobbying has received little attention by comparison, but it is in
the executive branch that important decisions are made on how to spend
$1,082 in meals/b
Deal’s order says the aim of the ethics policy is “to maintain the public
trust” by making government function “in a manner consistent with the
highest ethical standards.” But state records show some lobbyists and
government executives working closely together, hashing out strategy and
talking business over lobbyist-purchased meals — exactly the scenario Deal’s
order seeks to avoid.
Frank Shelp, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and
Developmental Disabilities, took at least $1,082 in meals from lobbyists in
2011, records show. Many times, Shelp dined with Stanley Jones, a health
care attorney representing companies that hold millions in contracts with
Jones has a long history working on mental health policy in a variety of
official and semi-official roles. Emails between him and Shelp show how he
brought that experience to bear on behalf of his clients.
In a Jan. 12, 2011, email Jones invites Shelp and deputy commissioner Bryce
McLaughlin out to dinner.
“Love a chance to have dinner again with you and Bryce,” Jones wrote in an
email. “Any time next week or week after possible?”
“I’m sure,” Shelp replied. “Next week I think is booked, but week after.”
Dozens of emails between Shelp and Jones show how the lobbyist worked to get
time for his clients with the commissioner, often over a meal.
“They are open for breakfast, lunch, dinner or another time,” Jones wrote in
an Aug. 23 email on behalf of Behavioral Health Link, a client that has $7.1
million in contracts with the department and operates the Georgia Crisis
Access Line, a mental health hotline.
Jones wrote the company was interested in extending its contract and adding
In an interview with the AJC, Shelp said accepting the meals was a mistake
and that he had reimbursed the lobbyists. He also spoke up for Jones, who he
described as “an outstanding figure in mental health.”
“His motives and service in these areas really need to be given a fair shake
in all that,” he said.
Shelp said he does not show favoritism to lobbyists and that he makes time
for all kinds of people with a stake in the department.
“I give access away on a daily basis. That’s part of my job,” he said.
b‘I regret these violations’/b
Another frequent target of lobbyist gifts is the Department of Natural
Resources. Since Deal’s order, Commissioner Mark Williams accepted $1,230 in
meals, tickets and other gifts from lobbyists representing Georgia Power,
Berry College and the National Rifle Association, among others.
In an interview, Williams said he was “very familiar” with Deal’s order but
declined to comment on specific gifts until he could review the records.
“I’ve eaten out with some folks,” he said. “I don’t remember which ones. Most
of the time I use my own credit card.”
After several days, Williams produced a written statement that he would
refund the gifts to the lobbyists.
“It has come to my attention that in 2011 and 2012 I accepted gifts, lodging
and meals in violation of Governor Deal’s Ethics Executive Order,” the
statement said. “I regret these violations and will ensure this does not
The department did not specifically identify which gifts were refunded but
said the commissioner paid back every gift that exceeded the $25 limit.
Williams was not alone at DNR in accepting gifts from lobbyists. In November
2011, Georgia Power spent $483 on meals and transportation for DNR board
members and staff for a tour of Plant Vogtle. A week later, Georgia Power
paid travel expenses for Williams and three staffers to visit the company’s
North Georgia regional office.
When informed of the AJC’s findings, the DNR ordered its staffers to pay the
lobbyists back. Members of the DNR board, however, were not asked to repay
b‘I totally agree’/b
Also last year, insurance industry lobbyists spent more than $3,000 on
conference expenses for officials of the State Board of Workers’
Compensation. The board regulates the workers compensation system in Georgia
and is responsible for ruling on compensation appeals from workers injured
on the job.
At a conference in June, lobbyist Roy Bowen of the Georgia Traditional
Manufacturers Association spent $874 in one weekend for lodging and meals
for board chairman Rick Thompson. Thompson told the AJC accepting the
payments was a mistake and he had intended the agency cover the costs.
One week after the conference, Bowen emailed Thompson, asking him to set up a
dinner with state legislators.
“Such a get-together would also give us an opportunity to learn what the
members are hearing from their constituents about workers comp and it may
serve to derail in advance any proposed legislation that is designed to be
responsive to those anecdotal issues,” Bowen wrote.
Thompson responded, “I totally agree.”
Thompson told the AJC he has similar exchanges with others, including
workers’ representatives. However, all the gifts accepted by Thompson in the
past year came from insurance and manufacturing associations.
Last year, two members of the state’s Medicaid Drug Utilization Review Board
accepted $989 in catered lunches for their offices from Forest
Pharmaceuticals. The board is supposed to look out for patients and
taxpayers by recommending drugs based on effectiveness and cost-efficiency.
The lunches came in advance of presentations by Forest for new drugs to be
considered by the board for inclusion in the taxpayer-funded program. One
lunch came a week after the company was sentenced in federal court to pay
$164 million for illegal marketing and distribution of its products.
The Department of Community Health said everyone in the agency has been
briefed about the executive order, but gifts are not unusual for doctors
serving on the 16-member drug board.
“In doing business, pharmaceutical representatives frequently provide lunches
or other meals for providers’ office staffs. This type of activity is part
of the normal course of doing business for these providers who serve on our
boards,” the department said.
The department said its employees are subject to the gift ban, but the drug
board members are not.
Even with the continued influence of special interests, Deal’s order has kept
lobbyists’ gifts low compared with the freebies that flow to the
Legislature. Perhaps more telling, executive branch officials who do not
fall under Deal’s orders are much more likely to accept gifts even when the
lobbyist represents a government contractor or an industry the official
Robinson, Deal’s spokesman, said the governor’s own office is an example of
how the process should work.“You don’t see his staff showing up in those
disclosures,” he said. “In instances where there has been a disclosure where
the staff was unaware they were receiving something, the money has been
‘BTWN YOU AND ME’
In its examination of emails between lobbyists and state employees, the AJC
obtained correspondence between Frank Shelp, head of the Department of
Behavioral Health, and Stanley Jones, a lobbyist for several interests,
concerning their desire to find funding for a mental health “super center”
at Grady Memorial Hospital. Shelp complimented Jones on his tactics.
“I’m going to start calling you General Morgan as a code name,” the
commissioner wrote, explaining in a later exchange between the two men that
he was referring to Revolutionary War Gen. Daniel Morgan, a famed tactician.
Even when their efforts to get the governor to fund the Grady project did
not pan out, Shelp mentioned other options.
In January, Jones sent an email asking about the Grady center after the
governor’s budget proposal included it but without any funding. In a reply
marked “Confidential,” Shelp said if he could not get the Legislature to put
money into the project, he could redirect funding toward it later, adding
“but that’s ugly.”
“Keep this email btwn you and me,” he told Jones.
ABOUT THIS REPORT
Aaron Gregg is a student at Emory University majoring in music and political
science. He has been studying investigative reporting in the university’s
journalism program for the past year.
This article grew out of a joint project between The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution and Emory University’s investigative reporting class.
The investigation began in early 2012 with a broad analysis of state
lobbying records and eventually focused on lobbyist gifts to the executive