In a telephone interview, Ralston was asked how it was proper to accept such a gift from Commonwealth Research Associates, a lobbying firm pushing for a high-speed train line between Atlanta and Chattanooga.
"I don't think it's accurate to characterize this trip as a gift," Ralston said. "Secondly, it was an opportunity to look at high speed rail and how it related to economic development, and it didn't cost the taxpayers a penny. Most of my time ... was spent in meetings with people that have been involved in that issue - engineers, planners, government officials and others."
If the trip was necessary, shouldn't the state pay for the Speaker's trip?
"Well, this is not a good time for the state to be paying much of anything," Ralston said. "We're cutting the budget down here."
The speaker got no argument on it not being a good time for the state to pay for such a junket. But your columnist suggested it was a matter of principle: the state as Ralston's employer should pay the bill - for him - if the trip was that important.
Ralston said he has "become very involved in and interested in our transportation future as a state." He said, "Before we get too far down the road, I want to have the opportunity to hear from people, pros and cons, and I heard both on this trip about high speed rail and the various forms that it takes. And so it was a working trip."
He was asked what message the lobbyist-paid trip for him and his family sent to fellow legislators, other elected officials and the citizens of Georgia."
"I think it sends a message to Georgians that I care deeply about this issue. I think it also says we've got ethics laws in place in Georgia that give openness and transparency to people so they can look and see who's spending money on us and how much, and then make a determination when appropriate if it causes us to be influenced by those expenditures."
Why didn't his office issue a news release before or after the trip? "We don't make a habit of issuing news releases about everything I do," he replied.
Q: But this is a little out of the ordinary, wouldn't you think?
A: I don't know that it was. It might have been out of the ordinary in that I was in another country, and that sort of thing. But.... I'm working full time. And so when I go to look at the ports in Savannah, I don't issue a press release. If I go look at other transportation projects in different areas of Georgia, we don't issue a press release. I'm just working."
Okay, people, what's your verdict? Gift? Influence? Or just another week's work?