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Attorney General Olens intends to be proactive

ATLANTA --- Sam Olens doesn't intend to be bored as the new attorney general.

He's already committed to three major pieces of legislation and instructed his staff to begin drafting the documents needed for projects that haven't been funded yet, including the Savannah River deepening and interstate highway improvements, so there will be no delays when the money comes through.

He'll also find himself in the middle of the kind of political battles his immediate predecessor, Thurbert Baker, eschewed. In 13 years, Baker rarely called a news conference or announced a legislative agenda, as Mr. Olens did last week, just four weeks into his term.

Though he's clad in the raiment of the people's protector, his shining new armor is likely to get a few dents and dings. Still, such a wardrobe has helped more than one state's attorney general move up to the governor's office, something to keep in mind as Georgia's current governor turns 70 in the middle of his first term in office.

Whatever his motives, Mr. Olens won't be a wallflower.

"One of the things I sought to do as the new attorney general is for the office to be far more proactive than reactive," he said.

Before immediately ascribing ulterior motives, consider the story behind each of the legislative initiatives he is launching.

For instance, he got involved in House Bill 237, which tightens loopholes in human trafficking laws, because of conversations four years ago with Rep. Rich Golick, the chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. Both men are Cobb County Republicans.

After November's election, Mr. Olens attended a conference of the National Association of Attorneys General, where he picked up some pointers that reminded him of that 2007 conversation.

"We had a couple of cases where, frankly, parents were selling their children, and we needed to make it abundantly clear that was treated as (trafficking) any other child," Mr. Olens said.

Mr. Golick steered him to Rep. Ed Lindsey, an Atlanta Republican whom Mr. Olens knew from court cases where they were on opposite sides. Mr. Lindsey was already drafting a bill, and so they became partners on the issue.

Another bill sponsored by Mr. Golick is HB 237, which would give the attorney general's office jurisdiction in mortgage-foreclosure fraud, something Mr. Olens began thinking about during the campaign. A 2005 law gave the office authority to go after bogus mortgages but not cases where mortgage holders are fraudulently foreclosing on legitimate mortgages.

If he was inclined to forget about the issue, he gets reminded with about 100 calls a day to the department from complaining homeowners.

His third initiative is a rewrite of Georgia's Sunshine Law, making good on a campaign promise made to the press. The office has already spent 20 hours on it, he estimates, sorting out the various nuances and court decisions about the existing law.

"It's really incomprehensible," he said. "It's not really in English at this point."

To enhance compliance, he wants to increase the penalties tenfold on government officials who meet secretly or withhold documents in violation of the law.

"We have chosen, in this office since we deal with the complaints, to err on the side of release rather than the side of bureaucracy," he said.

He isn't seeking higher fines because he believes the legislators would be unlikely to approve them.

"I'm actually not looking to make political hay as much as I'm looking to have a bill passed," he said.

Other changes include requiring that open-records requests be made in writing and that minutes be taken by the clerk of discussions behind closed doors which could be made public if a court determines the discussion should have taken place in public.

He and his staff have their fingers in more pies than just these three bills because he has won agreement from legislative leaders to provide legal advice to lawmakers as they are drafting contentious bills. After all, the Law Department will have to defend any constitutional challenges, he said, so it makes sense to offer advice that could reduce any vulnerability.

He has updated the office Web site, added Facebook and Twitter accounts and is broadening his search for more savvy attorneys to fill current openings.

As attorney general, Mr. Olens is in a post that naturally casts him as the knight in shining armor, and he seems willing to accept that mantle so far. Time will tell where the chinks are and whether the weight of it becomes unbearable.

Web posted on Thursday, February 24, 2011

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