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House Speaker David Ralston: Lingering tax Q’s, $1M loan
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Leaders in the public sector have plenty of public resources to promote their political views, accomplishments and experience. But often the public record holds much more: personal and campaign finance disclosures, expense reports, and business, tax and court filings. Here’s what they show:
David Edmund Ralston (R-Blue Ridge)
HD 7 (Fannin, Gilmer & Dawson counties)
Ralston, who championed a 2010 law that he touted as ethics reform, accepted a $17,279 lobbyist-funded trip to Europe later that year for himself, his chief of staff and their families. Ethics-advocacy groups denounced the trip as a junket and criticized Ralston’s decision to bring his family with him. Public records suggest the lobbyist, a subcontractor to the Georgia Department of Transportation, may have paid for the trip with taxpayer dollars.
Ralston has had recurring tax difficulties. The Internal Revenue Service placed a lien on his property for more than $70,000 in unpaid taxes for 1992 and 1993, a problem that he blamed on the IRS‘s use of an incorrect Social Security number. In 2003, the Georgia Department of Revenue filed a garnishment against Ralston for $36,880 in unpaid income taxes and interest. In 2006 and 2007, the IRS filed more liens totaling $433,867 against Ralston for unpaid income taxes from 1996 through 2005. The speaker has blamed those unpaid taxes on a former employee’s embezzlement. In 2008, the Georgia Department of Revenue filed an $11,819 tax lien against Ralston. And in June 2011, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on about $1,300 in unpaid property taxes on land owned by Ralston’s wife in Dawson County. Those debts were subsequently satisfied.
The speaker paid off the federal tax liens in 2007 with a loan from the Blairsville-based United Community Bank, one of his most generous campaign donors over the years (as noted below). By January 2014, Ralston owed $1,014,988 on the debt, real estate records show; tax assessors valued Ralston’s real estate holdings, posted as collateral, at less than half that much. Fannin County commissioners replaced the three tax assessors in 2014 after a state review found “unacceptably low” appraisals for some properties. A sales-ratio study found properties overall were assessed at only 35.3 percent of actual value — the third-lowest rate in Georgia — rather than the required 40 percent (UPDATE: In September 2014, Ralston sold the office building posted as partial collateral for $440,000).
The American Legislative Exchange Council awarded “scholarships” totaling $2,891 to Ralston in 2004, records show. Corporate donors — including petroleum, pharmaceutical, utility, tobacco and health-care interests — funded the scholarships, which were meant to cover the costs of airfare and lodging to attend ALEC functions. The donations generally are not disclosed as lobbyist gifts, since ALEC does not have a registered lobbyist in Georgia.
- Served in the Georgia Senate from 1993 through 1998.
- Ran for attorney general in 1998, losing by 97,000 votes.
- Won a House seat in 2002, defeating a Democrat by a 3-to-1 margin.
- Re-elected six times since then.
- Challenged Glenn Richardson for the House speaker’s job in 2008 and lost.
- Elected speaker by House Republicans in 2010 after Richardson resigned. Earns a state salary of $99,000 a year.
- Re-elected after winning 2014 Republican primary with 65% of the vote.
- Appropriations (2005-09)
- Governmental Affairs (2009)
- Industrial Relations (2003-04)
- Judiciary (2003-04)
- Judiciary Non-Civil (2005-09; chairman, 2005-08 )
- Reapportionment (2005-06)
- Rules (2005-08)
- State Institutions and Property (2003-04)
- Transportation (2007-09)
Attorney. His law firm, David E. Ralston P.C., was administratively dissolved in September 2010 by the Georgia secretary of state for failing to file its annual registration. The firm’s specialties, according to the Martindale-Hubbell law directory, were Litigation; Trials; Criminal Defense Law; Negligence Law; and Family Law. Ralston worked as a newspaper reporter at The Gainesville Times in 1976-77.
Ralston has handled a variety of civil matters — such as divorces, personal injury and breach-of-contract claims — as well as wrongful death suits against a private hospital near Augusta and the state’s Northwest Georgia psychiatric hospital. He also represented a variety of criminal defendants in the 1980s and 1990s, ranging from drunk drivers to accused murderers and child molesters, some of whom were acquitted. His defense work became an issue in the 1998 GOP primary for attorney general when rivals suggested Ralston was soft on crime. Ralston’s response, as published in the AJC at the time:
“When I was in law school, I learned that the U.S. Constitution gives everyone the right to be defended. I don’t know if [his opponents] missed that class or not, but it makes me wonder if anyone who doesn’t understand the Constitution is qualified to be attorney general.”
After becoming speaker of the House, Ralston introduced legislation that relaxed many of the restrictions — widely regarded as onerous — for registration by convicted sex offenders. It took effect in 2010.
Other business interests
- David E. Ralston Law Office, Blue Ridge, Ga.
- None disclosed.
- Personal residence in Blue Ridge valued at $180,000
- 10 acres, unimproved property, Dawson County (owned by his wife, Jane Ralston), valued in 2011 at $64,000.
A March 2010 complaint alleging that Ralston failed to provide sufficient details of his campaign spending remains under investigation by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. In 2012, the commission fined Chris Brady, the lobbyist who paid for Ralston’s trip to Europe, $300 for failing to report the expenditures promptly.
Donors have given Ralston’s campaign more than $3.7 million since 1996. The breakdown per election cycle:
- 1996: $21,625
- 1997-98: $901,542 820,925
- 2002: $58,608
- 2003-04: $105,860 103860
- 2005-06: $85,434 87885
- 2007-08: $82,300
- 2009-10: $509,505
- 2011-12: $807,625
- 2013-14: $1,009,046
- 2015: $203,314
- Ralston also loaned or gave about $120,290 to his 1998 campaign for attorney general, which reported paying him back about $66,000.
- Reported cash on hand (July 2015): $270,634
- $41,800 Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak LLP, Columbus, Ga., personal injury attorneys
- $39,300 Georgia Power Co. & executives
- $35,000 executives of Community Health Systems, Hawkinsville, Ga.
- $33,350 Coca-Cola Co. & the Georgia Beverage Association
- $28,859 Troutman Sanders LLP & its lobbyists
- $28,700 Georgia Trial Lawyers Association
- $24,100 Ellijay Telephone Co. & owners
- $23,000 C.W. Matthews Contracting Co.
- $22,200 United Health Services of Georgia & Pruitt Corp., nursing homes
- $21,400 Select Management Resources Inc., title pawn lender
- $20,550 Tom’s Amusement Co. Inc., Blue Ridge, Ga.
- $20,050 Georgia Pharmacy Association
- $19,750 Georgia Association of Realtors
- $19,700 United Community Banks & executives
- $19,550 Georgia Hospital Association
- $19,550 Home Builders Association of Georgia
- $18,900 Medical Association of Georgia & executives
- $18,400 Georgia Highway Contractors Association
- $18,000 Georgia Bankers Association
- $17,900 Georgia Health Care Association, nursing homes
- $17,500 Pine Leaf Investments, nursing homes
- $17,500 State Farm Insurance
- $16,200 United Distributors Inc. & executives
- $16,150 Donald Leebern Jr. & family, liquor & beverage distributor
- $15,550 Philip Morris USA & parent company Altria
- $15,400 Aflac
- $15,400 TitleMax, title pawn lender
- $15,400 Georgia Apartment Association
- $15,000 Health Management LLC
- $15,000 Pine Willows Health Care Inc., Eastman, Ga., nursing homes
- $14,900 Wellcare of Georgia Inc.
- $14,700 Hospital Corporation of America
- $14,000 ClerkPAC & Superior Court clerks in Georgia
- $14,000 Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals
- $13,602 Georgia Automobile Dealers Association
- $13,550 Corrections Corporation of America
- $13,200 Publix Super Markets
- $12,900 Georgia-Pacific & principal owner Koch Industries Inc.
- $12,750 BlueCross BlueShield of Georgia
- $12,750 Georgia Chamber of Commerce
- $12,700 Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce
- $12,500 Canton Convalescent Center
- $12,500 Westbury Enterprises Inc., nursing homes
- $12,000 Joe Tanner & Associates & lobbyists, lobbying firm
- $11,750 MAG Mutual Insurance Co.
- $11,725 Community Bankers Association of Georgia
- $11,600 Virgil Williams & the Williams Companies
- $11,550 Georgia Oilmen’s Association & executives
- $11,500 AT&T & executives
- $11,500 Georgia Dental Association
- $11,000 General Electric Co.
- $10,800 Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association
- $10,700 Georgia Industrial Loan Association
- $10,000 Cumming Nursing Center
- $10,000 General Wholesale Beer Co.
- $10,000 Georgia Academy of Emergency Room Physicians
- $10,000 Georgia Electric Membership Corp.
He has used his campaign account to reimburse expenses of staffers in the speaker’s office and paid his deputy counsel, Hayley Yaun, more than $67,000, primarily as a political adviser.
Since becoming speaker of the House, Ralston has made more than $590,000 in political donations from his campaign fund. (Some advocacy groups have proposed a $10,000 cap on campaign-to-campaign donations per two-year election cycle.)
- 2002: $1,050
- 2003-04: $3,800
- 2005-06: $43,850
- 2007-08: $34,650
- 2009-10: $212,800
- 2011-12: $205,750
- 2013-14: $175,450
- 2015: $2,500
Lobbyists have reported paying for meals and other gifts for Ralston valued at more than $73,000 since 2008, but virtually nothing since July 2012, when Republican primary voters overwhemingly endorsed a $100 gift cap.(The Georgia Chamber of Commerce treated him to a $28 Eggs and Issues breakfast in January 2013.)
In November 2010, Ralston accepted a $17,279 trip to Europe from a lobbyist promoting high-speed ground transportation. The speaker’s chief of staff, their spouses and Ralston’s two children accompanied him.
The big spenders: Commonwealth Research Associates ($17,775), sponsor of the European trip; GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group, the lobbying firm of fellow Blue Ridge resident John “Trip” Martin ($5,165); AT&T ($3,569), and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce ($2,322).
The breakdown by year:
- 2006: $2,558
- 2007: $5,234
- 2008: $2,871
- 2009: $2,191
- 2010: $17,734
- 2011: $36,607
- 2012: $6,073
- 2013: $84
- 2014: $3
Friends and family
GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group hired Ralston’s son, Matt, as an intern in January 2011, paying him $1,000 a month plus a $95 parking stipend. Martin said UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute had recommended hiring Matt two years earlier, before his father became speaker, as its top-rated intern candidate.
Sarah Ralston, the speaker’s niece, is a lobbyist for the Georgia Health Care Association, the trade group for the state’s nursing home industry.
The speaker’s father, Willard Ralston, served as the elected clerk of Gilmer County Superior Court from 1969 through 1996. At his father’s suggestion, Ralston said in a 2010 interview with Georgia Trend, he adopted Johnny Isakson (now a U.S. senator) as a role model.
Ralston nominated family friend Harry Doss for a Superior Court judgeship in 2005. Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Doss, who stepped down in 2009 after the state Judicial Qualifications Commission sought to remove him from office for alleged misconduct, including unprofessional courtroom behavior, acting beyond his authority and misusing public funds. Ralston represented Doss initially in talks with the JQC before handing the case off to another attorney.
Perdue appointed Amanda H. Mercier, Ralston’s law partner, in April 2010 to take Doss’s place.
In 2009, Rep. Doug Collins (now a U.S. congressman) nominated Ralston to fill a vacancy on the Georgia Supreme Court.
Committee days & travel expenses
When the Legislature is out of session, members may collect $173 per diem, plus mileage, for committee meetings or other official business. (Per diem was $127 prior to 2007.) Lawmakers living within 50 miles of the Capitol are taxed on these payments, which were originally intended to cover out-of-town members’ food and lodging. Here’s the annual breakdown, based on the year in which the expenses were paid:
- 2003: $2,450 (8 days)
- 2004: $1,690 (12 days)
- 2005: $6,163 (25 days)
- 2006: $3,346 (15 days)
- 2007: $10,685 (43 days)
- 2008: $6,940 (30 days)
- 2009: $12,410 (54 days)
- 2010: $8,607 (48 days)
- 2011: $16,954 (98 days)
- 2012: $15,397 (89 days)
- 2013: $14,186 (82 days)
- 2014: $10,380 (60 days)
Posted Dec. 12, 2011; updated July 12, 2015