How transparent was House speaker’s European holiday?
House Speaker David Ralston and unspecified staff and family members enjoyed a $17,000 working holiday last Thanksgiving, a lobbyist representing his own consulting firm reported recently.
So much for the idea of a $100 gift cap. Or for transparency in government.
Lobbyist Chris Brady, representing Commonwealth Research Associates LLC, picked up the tab for hotels and airfare. A few weeks later, Brady took Ralston and staff to a $403 dinner.
Other than that, official disclosures tell us nothing. They don’t specify who went, where they went or the purpose of the trip. This smidgen of information was available only because Brady registered as a lobbyist Jan. 14 and filed a disclosure of expenditures, as required, the following day.
Brady’s report may well comply with the minimum lobbyist disclosure requirements — such as they are — in state law. But is it transparency, or is it smoke and mirrors designed to create an illusion of transparency?
The AJC’s Aaron Gould Sheinin subsequently learned that the entourage included Ralston’s wife and two children, as well as the speaker’s chief of staff Spiro Amburn and his wife. An itinerary provided by Brady shows the group toured transit facilities in Germany and the Netherlands and watched a presentation on the magnetic levitation transit system developed by the German-based company Transrapid.
Ralston told Sheinin he took his family along because he couldn’t go any other time and didn’t want to be away from his family at Thanksgiving. “I don’t apologize for that,” he said.
The speaker’s office has been “nothing less than open and transparent” about the trip and other issues, spokesman Marshall Guest wrote in an e-mail.
But Georgia ethics law required only a sketchy disclosure of the trip, and perhaps none at all if Brady had not registered as a lobbyist.
Commonwealth Research has worked as a consultant for an ongoing federally funded study of an Atlanta-to-Chattanooga maglev line. At one time, Commonwealth Research was the exclusive representative of Transrapid, one of three vendors of maglev technology in the world.
Brady hasn’t asked Ralston yet to support funding or other state action for the maglev line, Guest said. But he could. Georgia has ponied up $1.5 million toward the local match for that federal money and presumably would be asked for more if and when the project gets beyond the planning stage.
News of Ralston’s trip broke just two days after an unlikely coalition of activist groups, citing “a culture of corruption,” announced a push for comprehensive ethics reform at the state Capitol in 2011.
Common Cause Georgia is teaming with consumer group Georgia Watch, the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and onetime gubernatorial candidate Ray Boyd to push for passage of a comprehensive ethics bill which might include a $100 cap on any gift to a legislator or family member.
“Obviously if he took his family it was not strictly business. This is the type of thing that would be banned under this ethics bill,” said Debbie Dooley, co-coordinator of the Georgia Tea Party. “This is just the type of environment that we’re trying to change.”
Although the coalition is still hammering out the language of its ethics bill, Dooley said she believes the group has a strong chance of getting the state Senate to pass many of its provisions.
In the House, though, Dooley said she expects Ralston to be a roadblock. She said the Tea Party is planning a rally in Ralston’s legislative district to protest his apparent opposition to tougher ethics laws.
“We are going to be looking at him extremely closely,” she said. News of the Germany trip “is like a gift for us. It will help us get ethics reform passed.”