I read your report that Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, citing a “lack of authority,” refused to appoint an independent investigator to review the handling of ethics complaints involving Gov. Nathan Deal. Some will dismiss this as political theatre during an election year. None of us are naive to the partisan uses of “ethics investigations” in elections. But my concern is an issue that may linger long after this fall’s election cycle: the claim by Owens that, as attorney general, his office “lacks authority” to investigate allegations of public corruption.
Olens’s explanation might surprise former Attorney General Michael J. Bowers, who did exactly what Olens claims he cannot: investigate state officials for public corruption. At a time when the reins of power were held by mostly Democratic hands, Bowers was a Democrat and then a Republican, but he investigated officials of both parties regardless. The way Bowers investigated alleged public corruption contrasts sharply with Olens’s claim his office lacks authority to do the same.
Out of curiosity, I did some research and found O.C.G.A. § 45-15-17 which states: “The Attorney General, as head of the Department of Law and as chief legal officer of the state, is authorized to institute and conduct investigations at any time into the affairs of the state.”
Subsection (b) of this law empowers the Attorney General to “call any party to testify under oath at such investigations,” “take the depositions of witnesses,” issue subpoenas and much more. And if someone disobeys or interferes, subsection (c) says the attorney general can have a judge lock them up until they comply.
Whether or not Gov. Deal (or his staff) did anything wrong is secondary to the point I want to make, which is this: When there is an allegation of public corruption, the attorney general has the authority to investigate it.
As attorney general, Olens is using public money to settle whistleblower lawsuits making allegations that, at minimum, embarrass the administration and, at worst, may involve more real abuse. Olens regards his “authority” as robust enough to use public money to buy people’s silence but too puny to investigate the truth. That is a disgrace, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.
What happens the next time someone from the Michael Bowers mold holds the Office of Attorney General and actually investigates alleged public corruption? Because of Mr. Olens, that person likely will face harsher accusations of using his office for “playing politics” when, in reality, it is the attorney general’s job to investigate … and to do it without regard to political favoritism.
If Olens sets a precedent that makes it harder for future attorney generals to do their duty, he will have done lasting damage to an Attorney General’s Office that has a higher calling, and greater authority, than he allows.
John F. Salter
Attorney at Law
Barnes Law Group, LLC