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Did taxpayers fund Ralston’s Europe trip?
By JIM WALLS
Dec. 12, 2011 — The funds used to fly House Speaker David Ralston’s family to Europe last Thanksgiving were not taxpayers’ dollars — but, quite possibly, they used to be.
A year ago, Ralston had just touched down after a week in Germany and the Netherlands with his chief of staff, their wives and the Ralstons’ two children. Chris Brady, the lobbyist paying for the trip, reported the entourage rode high-speed trains, explored rail stations and nearby commercial districts and talked about how similar infrastructure might spark economic development in the corridor between Atlanta and Chattanooga.
The speaker defended the $17,279 excursion, saying he could go at no other time and wanted to be with his family during Thanksgiving week. “I don’t apologize for that,” Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Brady, Atlanta Unfiltered has learned, isn’t just any lobbyist. He’s also a Georgia Department of Transportation subcontractor whose firm, Commonwealth Research Associates, has pocketed at least $458,000 since 2007 as part of a team studying a possible high-speed Atlanta-to-Chattanooga transit line.
Those payments came from an $8 million federal grant — overseen by Georgia’s DOT — for part one of an environmental assessment of an Atlanta-to-Chattanooga line. Brady’s company was assigned to community outreach, coordinating with government and business stakeholders — and getting more money for more studies.
Commonwealth Research Associates was assigned to help secure matching funds to draw down a second, $13.8 million federal grant, records show. That meant, among other things, ensuring that Georgia stuck with its tentative commitment to ante up $1.5 million of the match.
AECOM Inc., DOT’s lead consultant on the study, says Commonwealth Research Associates has submitted no invoices since October 2010. Spokesman Paul Gennaro said AECOM did not pay for the Ralston trip a month later.
“If such a trip occurred, it was not part of, or otherwise in connection, with CRA’s contract with us,” Gennaro wrote in an e-mail.
Brady did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages asking whether grant money paid indirectly for Ralston’s trip, but it hardly matters. Once Commonwealth Research Associates banked $458,000 of grant money, who’s to say how it was spent?
Brady’s possible use of federal funds to pay for the trip raises questions, particularly: Were transportation, hotel and meal costs for Ralston’s family an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars? What public benefit was derived from their tagging along?
We tried to ask Ralston that question, but his spokesman — as has been his practice — did not return Atlanta Unfiltered’s phone calls or e-mail messages seeking comment.
The Georgia DOT said the lobbyist’s decision to pay for the Ralston trip was out of its hands. “We can’t control what happens to funding once it’s paid to a contractor,” DOT spokesman David Spear said.
Common Cause Georgia, which allied with other advocacy groups in 2011 to seek a curb on lobbyist influence, called again last week for a ban on lobbyist gifts.
“This trip was simply a junket poorly disguised as an issue that is not a legislative priority,” said William Perry, the group’s executive director. “It’s an egregious example of big gifts to politicians, and it should have spurred a ban on such spending during the last legislative session. The fact that it didn’t shows how out of touch many members of the Legislature are.”
Georgia wound up keeping its $1.5 million commitment for matching funds, allowing the state to tap into the $13.8 million for more study of a high-speed rail or magnetic levitation line to Chattanooga. Recently, Ralston has talked up a high-speed train line as a possible bargaining chip in potential negotiations with Tennessee for water.
Even if that study is completed, there may be no money to actually build the thing. Georgia would be looking for the feds to pay the bulk of the $6 billion to $9 billion needed for a magnetic levitation line, but budget hawks in Congress this year eliminated $8 billion for high-speed trains from the 2012 federal budget and vowed to continue fighting President Obama’s push for $53 billion over six years.
Participants in the study would benefit regardless, since money for the second study is not at risk.
Commonwealth Research Associates billed $330 an hour for Brady’s time — far more than any of the dozens of engineers working for other subcontractors on the study team. The services of project administrator Linda Hamrick — a longtime lobbyist and former executive director of the Georgia Republican Party — cost $175 an hour.
Commonwealth Research Associates made the most of its contract. Its original 2007 deal with lead consultant AECOM, then known as Earth Tech Inc., called for a maximum payment of $307,690. AECOM threw in another $150,000 in August 2010, “recogniz[ing] the increased level of effort … related to continued coordination with Stakeholders.” By October 2010, the month before Ralston’s trip, the contract amount had climbed again to $491,890.
DOT officials emphasize that they have chosen no consultants for the second phase of the environmental study, so there’s no guarantee that Commonwealth Research Associates would collect any portion of the second grant. They expect to put out solicitations for the work in the spring.
Footnote: Brady did not register as a lobbyist in Georgia or disclose his expenses until January 2011, about seven weeks after the trip. In February, Common Cause filed an ethics complaint with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission regarding Brady’s failure to register and report his spending in a timely fashion. The complaint remains under investigation.
Public records tip: This story is based on documents obtained from a private company, which are considered public records under Georgia law if they pertain to fulfilling public business, per O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70(a):
As used in this article, the term “public record” shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, or similar material prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency. “Public record” shall also mean such items received or maintained by a private person or entity on behalf of a public office or agency which are not otherwise subject to protection from disclosure …
AECOM, the engineering consultant, turned over 503 pages of contracts, invoices and correspondence regarding Commonwealth Research Associates and other subcontractors in response to a request made under the Georgia Open Records Act. The company even copied the documents to a flash drive and shipped it to me by overnight mail.