Don McKee: We must decide if speaker's trip was opportunity or gift
by Don McKee
Columnist
January 28, 2011 12:00 AM | 1197 views | 9 9 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Don McKee
Don McKee
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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston says he has no qualms about taking a seven-day, lobbyist-paid $17,000 trip to Europe with his family last November. He says it's up to the people of Georgia to decide if he is influenced by the gift.

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?

Comments
(9)
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anonymous
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January 29, 2011
The thing that strikes me as much as the blatant abuse of office is the incredible arrogance of the man when confronted. I'm reminded of machine politics of the 1880s and the attitude of " It's there for the taking."
West Cobb Resident
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January 29, 2011
Good point, ATF. Water is a much bigger issue right now.
ATF
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January 28, 2011
Well, if it were truly "up to the people of Georgia to decide" I would vote that it was unethical and the money paid is taxable. Of course, there are so few findings of "unethical conduct" and the consequences are so puny it doesn't really matter if it is unethical.

As much as all of that, what we will get out of this trip is another million dollar study of whether or not we should have fast speed transportation from here to Chattanooga or here to Athens and those of us who aren't going either place can just continue to stew in the traffic nightmare we have.

I think, before we build rail lines to create more growth we better build some reservoirs for water for the people already here and direct our development efforts toward using the closed manufacturing facilities and business spaces already available.

Watcher...
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January 28, 2011
I would like to see a detailed (to the inth degree) itinerary, hour by hour, of this trip.

Ralston should reimburse this money immediately.
anonymous
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January 28, 2011
If this was really just business, leave the family out of the picture when you are letting a lobbyist PAY for it all.

If nothing else, Ralston has proved he does not have the good sense to avoid situations that don't look good.

Ralston = Another dunderhead in GA government.

Curious One
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January 28, 2011
Gift, taxable and despicable ! What lousy leadership the Republican's have selected ?
Kenneth D. Parrott
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January 28, 2011
I think if this trip walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it probably is a duck. What sort of information could Ralston name, that could not have been gathered, and/or viewed and discussed from a computer screen in his office via phone/video conference?

Would Commonwealth,(what a suggestive name) Research Associates be willing to provide a complete list of all clients, and would Ralston also guarantee that none of those clients would ever be allowed to bid on any projects in Georgia? Fat chance for that, right?

That would help make me feel a little better about this particular duck, that right now looks to be either; not too bright, or just real greedy, or both.
NW Cobber
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January 28, 2011
Influence, absolutely! If it truly was a work trip, family members would not have been included. This is how established transit technology companies get their overpriced products sold! This is yet another reason I'm a big proponent of HighRoad Rapid Transit, including their "Silver Bullet" high speed rail.

The Speaker should be seeking American technology to produce American jobs and the subsequent tax revenues from them during these times of budget cutbacks (ie education!).

He sounds to me like he has lost his sensitivity to determining right from wrong!

Pat H
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January 28, 2011
I have lived here 30 years and have been to Chattanooga 3 times. I have always needed my car once I got there. I would never ride this train.

The Republicans in the House have made it clear that they will no longer subsidize rail - light or high speed. Amtrak has been subsidized since inception and it is still unable to financially support itself. The Cobb buses operate at a substantial loss. And the taxpayers pay for it all.

Why take your family on a fact finding trip? No way - this was a gift and needs to be reported on his income tax.
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