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Bada Bing! Speaker Ralston late to disclose $236K in donations
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By JIM WALLS
May 23, 2016 — A few years back, House Speaker David Ralston backed a move toward greater transparency in Georgia politics. His ethics bill, which took effect in 2014, requires quicker disclosure of lawmakers’ fund-raising before each year’s legislative session.
So it was a bit of a surprise to discover that Ralston failed to report nearly a quarter-million dollars in campaign contributions collected before legislators showed up for work under the Gold Dome in 2016.
The report of those contributions, along with more recent filings, appear to contain $13,000 in donations that exceed the legal limit. (See footnote below.)
In his final pre-session disclosure, Ralston reported that he received $127,000 in the six-plus months before the General Assembly convened Jan. 11.
But in an amended filing on March 21, just two days before the 2016 session ended, Ralston disclosed an additional $236,000-plus in donations during that same six-month period that he had not previously revealed.
Legislators may not accept campaign donations during their annual session out of concern that the money might be seen as influencing their votes.
Ralston’s previously undisclosed donations included more than $31,000 from health-care interests following bills affecting medical care; $27,000 from highway contractors wanting to protect $10 billion in new road projects; and $20,000 from banks and other financial institutions concerned with a rewrite of banking laws.
It’s unclear why Ralston did not report the donations earlier. Doug Chalmers, an attorney who’s worked on the speaker’s campaign disclosures for years, declined to comment, while a spokesman in the speaker’s office did not respond to phone and email messages.
The speaker’s amended filing also reported more than $85,000 in previously undisclosed spending.
In the past, candidates didn’t have to report donations received after Jan. 1 until March 31 or, in off-election years, June 30. That meant legislators generally didn’t disclose the big bucks raised in pre-session fund-raisers until they’d already left town for the year.
Ralston’s 2013 ethics bill recognized that Georgians deserved to know about those donations while the Legislature was still at work, not after the fact. The bill set Jan. 31 as the the new deadline for reporting pre-session contributions.
The speaker’s late filing, though, underscores a weakness in enforcing that requirement.
Amending an old disclosure to add unreported donations is a tacit admission that the original filing was incomplete and, therefore, violated Georgia’s disclosure law.
But, lacking evidence that a candidate intentionally filed an inaccurate disclosure, the state Campaign Finance Commission is disinclined to fine candidates who report more donations after the deadline.
Without a penalty, there’s no incentive to encourage legislators to be diligent about reporting all their donations when they should.
A footnote: Ralston’s amended disclosure shows that he — or at least someone with his campaign — really likes Bada Bing’s, a bar and hamburger joint on Decatur Street in Atlanta. His campaign rang up of a tab of more than $3,000 for 15 “political dinners” there from July to December last year.
Looks like we’ll have to check it out.
A second footnote: Ralston’s campaign appears to have accepted $13,000 from 11 donors that exceeds the legal limit. Legislative candidates, unless they’re in a runoff, may not accept more than $5,200 from a single donor during each two-year election cycle. Since the 2014 general election, Ralston’s disclosures show he’s received the following amounts:
- $7,500 Bill Holt Chevrolet of Canton
- $6,000 C.W. Matthews Contracting Co. Inc.
- $6,700 Committee of Automobile Retail Dealers of Georgia
- $6,000 Terry Cook, McRae, Ga., manager, Pineleaf Investments
- $7,500 Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals
- $6,000 Georgia Food Industry Association
- $6,000 Georgia Highway Contractors Association
- $5,500 Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association
- $6,000 Georgia Manufactured Housing Association
- $5,500 Jackson Healthcare LLC
- $7,500 United Health Services of Georgia Inc.