Virginia “Ginny” Looney, 1952-2014, ¡Presente!
(APN) ATLANTA — Virginia “Ginny” Lucile Looney, the first ethics officer for the City of Atlanta, and passionate advocate for transparency in government, passed away Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at the age of 61 after a five-year battle with ovarian cancer.
Looney was born September 11, 1952 and grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. She received her bachelor’s degree in Southern studies and women’s studies from the University of Alabama, and earned her law degree in 1985 at the University of Georgia. Looney graduated first in her class and served as editor of the Georgia Law Review while pursuing her degree.
Prior to working for the City of Atlanta, Looney worked for the Supreme Court of Georgia, where she clerked for Chief Justice Norman Fletcher since 1991.
“She was one of the most important people in my life. When you look back on people who were so important in your life, there might be five or six, and she was certainly one of those,” Fletcher said according to an obituary co-authored by Jane Hansen, public information officer for the Court, appearing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.
Looney was recruited in 2002 by then-Mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin to create an ethics board to maintain and further compliance with the City’s Code of Ethics, to enforce sanctions for violations, to increase governmental transparency, and to issue advisory opinions when questions of ethics arose.
Looney rose to the challenge, becoming the first ethics officer in 2003 and serving the City of Atlanta until her resignation in 2011.
“Serving as ethics officer has been challenging, engaging, satisfying, and never dull, and I will miss working with city employees and officials. After eight years, I feel that I have done what I intended to do – set up a functioning, effective office for enforcing ethical standards in the City. Now it is time for the City to gain someone with fresh energy to work in the position,” Looney said in the Fall 2011 edition of the Ethics Matters newsletter issued by the Board of Ethics.
“Her passing leaves a tremendous void within the legal community. I commend her service to the City of Atlanta during her tenure as the city’s first ethics officer,” Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5) said.
“Ms. Looney was instrumental in executing the city’s new ethics code. She was passionate about her tasks, and took her position seriously. The City of Atlanta has benefitted by the process, policy, and procedures that Ginny Looney left as her legacy,” Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) said.
“She was such an amazing person who touched the lives of many, and she will be missed,” Council President Ceasar Mitchell said. Indeed, Looney touched Mitchell’s life to the tune of five thousand dollars.
Looney was not afraid to take on powerful interests, including sitting City Councilmembers.
One important case handled by Looney, which resulted in a civil penalty of 5,000 dollars and 10,000 dollars in restitution, involved then At-Large City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell for 2006 violations. The violations stemmed from Mitchell’s hiring of his brother’s company to assist with constituent outreach and education, and his 2007 and 2008 failures to disclose his brother’s contract with the City.
In a notable 2009 case, negotiated and settled by Looney, District 2 Councilman Kwanza Hall was charged with violating the city’s Code of Ethics by using city email resources to send political and fundraising emails in 2006. Hall agreed to pay 750 dollars as an administrative sanction, and to reimburse the City of Atlanta 11,200 dollars for the use of the email system paid for by his office expense account and used for prohibited emails.
Other cases handled by Looney resulted in a fine for then-employee, Deborah Scott, for requesting the waiver of rental fees for her daughter’s wedding reception at City Hall; restitution and a fine for Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (District 4), who used city funds to pay for her campaign literature and workers; restitution and a fine for Municipal Clerk Rhonda Dauphin Johnson, who used city labor and a truck rented with city funds to move her furniture during normal business hours; restitution from then-Councilman Jim Maddox (District 11), who used city labor and equipment to pave his driveway; and a 3,500 dollar fine against then-Councilman Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large), who accepted donations on behalf of his purported foundation from prohibited sources and used City property to operate his purported foundation
Looney detailed her accomplishments in a 2009 report entitled “Ethics is the Only Deal.”
Within five years of the creation of the Ethics Board, Looney established the online Ethics Disclosure System, a system by which the public could access financial disclosure statements and conflict-of-interest statements from city officials and public employees.
She created the ethics enforcement program, which instigated investigations into substantive violations of the city Code of Ethics – resulting in eleven probable cause reports, nine settlement agreements, and one prosecution, and the collection of 10,431 dollars in sanctions.
She identified the process by which the Office would enforce fines, orders, and decisions of the Ethics Board.
She increased the number of personnel timely filing required financial disclosure statements from 70 percent in 2002 to 92 percent in 2008. With Looney’s efforts, the rate of non-filers decreased from 25 percent in 2002 to less than one percent in 2008.
Looney also spearheaded the creation of a 24-hour reporting hotline for city employees, and conducted ethics training and workshops for several thousand city employees and elected municipal officials.
In 2010, Atlanta Progressive News’s Editor, and activist Joe Beasley, co-filed an ethics complaint against former City Councilwoman Debi Starnes (District 2), in connection with her role as a policy advisor on homelessness to Mayor Shirley Franklin. APN’s Editor and Beasley met with Looney to fill out a complaint form, describe the complaint, and learn more about the investigation process. Looney was friendly, and both open and concerned about the complaint, although she later dismissed it because she found Starnes–who was being paid as a loaned employee by the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, via the United Way–did not fall under the jurisdiction of the code.
In 2011, Looney returned to the Supreme Court of Georgia to clerk for then-Chief Justice Carol Hunstein.
In addition to her husband of 37 years, Scott Suitts, Looney is survived by her parents, Sally and Hoyt Looney of Lacey Springs, Ala.; sons David Suitts, of Charlottesville, Va. and Phillip Suitts of Atlanta; her brother, James Looney of Huntsville, Ala.; and a sister, Mary Ann Buehler of Spring Hill, Tenn. She was preceded in death by her sister, Jane Leila Looney.
The family has asked that memorial gifts go toward establishment of the Ginny Looney Summer Fellowship at the Southern Education Foundation, 135 Auburn Ave., 2nd floor, Atlanta, Ga. 30303.