Charlie Harper: Recall Tim Echols - 'Public Service can no longer mean Public Self-Service in Georgia.'
When Tim Echols campaigned for the position of Public Service Commissioner, he pledged not to take so much as a cup of coffee from those he sought to regulate or their lobbyists. Less than one year into the job, Echols has charged state taxpayers for travels across the state which conveniently coincide with family events or just good times like Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
He “requested” Masters tickets on his official office letterhead. When the request went unanswered, Echols announced a sting operation to catch unlicensed limousines at Augusta National in apparent retribution. The club clearly did not recognize his need to greet everyday Georgians who inhabit Butler Cabin and their need to know about alternative fuels or the mission of the PSC.
Echols has even planned to travel to France to study their nuclear energy program but has decided that trip would be paid for by campaign funds rather than you and I. Echols, apparently forgetting about his pious campaign promises, has a campaign war chest buttressed with lobbyist’s money. Clearly, receiving a cup of coffee was the least voters should have been concerned with when electing Echols.
Echols is following in the footsteps of his political mentor, former State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine. Oxendine defeated incumbent Insurance Commissioner Tim Ryles by charging Ryles had improperly accepted $2,500 from those he regulated as campaign contributions. Oxendine went on to have a storied career of cozy relationships with those he regulated, as well as with Doctors who had adversarial relationships with regulated insurance companies. One such Doctor, Jeffrey Gallups, sought Oxendine’s help when fighting an insurance company, and bundled over $100K to Oxendine in campaign contributions, as well as entertained him at the Oscars, complete with an appearance at an Elton John after party.
Oxendine continued to walk an line with questionable contributions during his campaign for Governor, where he accepted $120,000 in questionable contributions from related parties which were laundered through several Alabama Political Action Committees sharing the same address. The money was returned, and Oxendine was able to use Georgia’s porous ethics laws to first argue that he couldn’t answer to ethics charges over the matter because they were timed to hurt his campaign, then to argue when the campaign was over that the statue of limitations prohibited the matter from proceeding.
Tim Echols served as consultant to Oxendine’s gubernatorial campaign, earning roughly $90,000 in payroll, expenses, consulting, and “reimbursement” before leaving to launch his own statewide campaign. When looking at the excesses of his mentor, it’s easy to see how just a few Masters tickets would look like harmless chump change, even if the limo drivers did need to ensure a shakedown for him to receive them.
News outlets around the state are taking notice of Echols antics, seeming to indicate he’s achieved his goal of “raising the stature” of the Public Service Commission. The Augusta Chronicle said of his ticket shakedown that it “may be the worst public service message we’ve ever seen” and his subsequent explanation “nothing short of comical”. The Cherokee Tribune noted it as “the most transparent case of feathering one’s own nest we’ve seen in a while” and summed him up as “wholly untrustworthy”. Echols, and other Georgia elected officials should note that these aren’t exactly “liberal” newspapers, with the Augusta Chronicle considered to have one of the most conservative editorial boards in the state, and Cherokee County one of the most Republican in Georgia.
Echols, like Oxendine before him, makes a mockery of the term public service. Yet Georgia’s ethics laws are toothless to the point of uselessness. There must be change, and Echols has nominated himself to be the perfect change agent, albeit unwittingly so.
The TEA Party has made no secret that they intend to push for ethics reforms laws in the next session of the General Assembly. They have been treated politely, but no one expects those under the Gold Dome to dismantle a system which works for most. High profile cases like Echols make the problems harder to ignore, yet insiders still lack the political will to make high stakes changes. There needs to be more fear of consequences, and to instill that fear, the TEA Party groups in Georgia need to start a recall effort for Tim Echols.
The process of recall is intentionally hard. The attempt to gain Masters Tickets with a threat of retaliation from his office should meet the legal criteria which must be approved by a judge. Sadly, that’s the “easy” part of a recall. TEA Party groups would then have to gain signatures from 15% of voters eligible for the last election, some 869,000 statewide, with a minimum of roughly 58,000 in each Congressional District.
In reality, a recall effort of this magnitude is likely to fail. But 100,000 signatures declaring a statewide elected Republican worthy of recall would provide enough incentive to legislators to put teeth into Georgia’s “transparency” commission. As a bonus, Commissioner Echols would have fulfilled his mission to raise the stature of the PSC and what the body does. More importantly, officials across the state would have a strong reminder of what they’re not supposed to do when they sign up for public service. Public Service can no longer mean Public Self-Service in Georgia. To send that message, Tim Echols should face a recall. Is the Tea Party up to it?