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One of Brian Kemp's first duties as governor was to swear elected officials into office, including Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Jim Beck (left). Kemp would later call for Beck's resignation after Beck's fraud charges came to light. (Photo/Gabriella Audi, www.gabbyaudi10.wixsite.com/mysite-1)

A couple of Georgia politicians have recently come under fire for corrupt practices. Former State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams has pled guilty to insurance fraud, false reporting of a crime and making a false statement to police. In a similar incident, a federal grand jury charged Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck with fraud, prompting Governor Kemp to rightly call for his resignation.

These examples of unscrupulous behavior from public leaders highlight the need to reduce corruption in Georgia government and politics.

The Williams and Beck fraud cases are striking, but they are far from the only cases of corruption in Georgia. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity rated Georgia 24th in the United States in its State Integrity Investigation. Though this ranking is an improvement from the 2012 report in which Georgia placed 50th, the state still lags behind in a few key areas, including political financing, executive accountability and lobbying disclosure.

The Beck case in particular demonstrates how corrupt practices can prohibit a leader from adequately performing his or her job. According to the United States Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia, used his position to steal over $2 million from the Georgia Underwriting Association, one of his former employers.

Activists have worried for a long time that corrupt practices and donations can lead politicians to back bad legislation, pleasing monied interests. Last year, former gubernatorial candidate Clay Tippins validated their concerns when he released a secret recording of gubernatorial candidate Casey Cagle admitting to supporting policies he disagreed with for political gain. Though the Cagle incident is only one example, it shows how easily other politicians could be acting unethically.

Besides leading politicians to support bad legislation, corruption can erode public trust in the government.

Geoffrey Sheagley, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Georgia, believes that, although the Beck incident might have little effect on its own, that case along with other scandals could reinforce the public’s negative views on politicians over time.

“A more distant consequence of a scandal like that might just be that it feeds into the public’s notion that politicians in general aren’t really trustworthy,” Sheagley said. “And while that one event might not swing the pendulum that much one way or another, it might sort of support and contribute to that narrative.”

Historically, trust in government has declined since the 1960s, which some political scientists ascribe to high-profile scandals.

“Others tie it [the decline in public trust of government] to real events,” Sheagley said. “Trust really peaks in the mid-’60s, and it really starts to have a precipitous decline after that. And that’s taking place during Watergate, during [the Vietnam War].”

Indeed, according to Pew Research Center, the percentage of the public that trusts the government “just about always” or “most of the time” has declined from its peak of 77% in 1964 to just 17% in March of 2019. In a time of growing national cynicism, government officials must be firm in their commitment to ethics. Admittedly, it is unclear if low trust ratings impair the government’s ability to operate, but Americans would likely be much more pleased with the political process if they believed that the government worked to serve the public.

Corruption remains a serious issue for Georgia. To ensure a more fair and trustworthy government, we must demand that our politicians act more ethically.

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