Speaker’s Thanks­giv­ing trip was a turkey

The Covington News - - Opinion - Dick Yar­brough Colum­nist Reach Dick Yar­brough at yarb2400@bell­south.net or P. O. Box 725373, At­lanta, GA 31139.

I won­der if our intrepid pub­lic ser­vants at the Gold Dome un­der­stand how ar­ro­gant and out-of-touch they look to We the Un­washed — or if they even care.

Case in point: The At­lanta news­pa­per has re­ported that House Speaker David Ral­ston took a trip over the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­days to Ger­many and the Nether­lands with his fam­ily and his chief of staff and spouse, cour­tesy of a Washington-based lob­by­ing firm. The cost? $17,000.

The pur­pose of the trip — ac­cord­ing to a group of peo­ple at­tempt­ing to keep a straight face — was to help the speaker un­der­stand how Euro­pean coun­tries have made rail an eco­nomic devel­op­ment tool and to as­sess the po­ten­tial for cre­at­ing a rail cor­ri­dor link­ing Chat­tanooga and At­lanta.

The firm pay­ing the bill was Com­mon­wealth Re­search As­so­ci­ates. A visit to their web­site re­veals they have done work on high-speed rail projects in the United States, in­clud­ing a mag­netic lev­i­ta­tion train to run be­tween Chat­tanooga and At­lanta.

Why Thanks­giv­ing? Why fam­ily on the trip?

Ral­ston told the news­pa­per, “I wanted to be with my fam­ily dur­ing Thanks­giv­ing and that was the only week I could go due to my sched­ule. I wanted to be with my wife and kids. I don’t apol­o­gize for that.”

As my momma would have said, “Bless his heart.”

This Thanks­giv­ing turkey of a trip as­sumes, of course, that the Chat­tanooga to At­lanta rail cor­ri­dor project is just around the corner and the need for the visit was ur­gent — we all know the warp speed with which leg­is­la­tion moves in our state — and that Chief of Staff Spiro Am­burn’s wife was needed to pro­vide on­site anal­y­sis of the po­ten­tial eco­nomic ben­e­fits for We the Un­washed, lest the whole project die abornin’.

It also as­sumes that the trip was so crit­i­cal that the speaker didn’t have time to dish out the cash from his own pocket to spring for some tourist seats on Lufthansa for his fam­ily.

The freebie trip to Europe is not an iso­lated in­ci­dent for David Ral­ston. Ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records, in the three months since the Novem­ber 2010 elec­tions he has ac­cepted some $22,000 in gifts, meals and tick­ets to sport­ing events from a num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing my alma mater, AT&T, as well as Delta Air­lines, the Ge­or­gia Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Uni­ver­sity Sys­tem of Ge­or­gia. By my cal­cu­la­tions that is roughly $238 a day — in­clud­ing week­ends — of free stuff and we aren’t even to Valen­tine’s Day.

Speaker Ral­ston and fel­low leg­is­la­tors and lob­by­ists would like We the Un­washed to be­lieve that these kinds of things are no big deal and don’t in­flu­ence how our intrepid pub­lic ser­vants man­age the tax dol­lars we have en­trusted to their care.

Our intrepid pub­lic ser­vants must think we are dumber than a rock.

The next time a politician tells you, “A free meal or a free trip isn’t go­ing to in­flu­ence my vote,” throw up on their shoes. Oth­er­wise, why would lob­by­ists spend the money?

Ge­or­gia has some of the weak­est ethics laws on the books. That is by de­sign.

I had the priv­i­lege to serve as a mem­ber of the State Ethics Com­mis­sion — known to­day as the Ge­or­gia Govern­ment Trans­parency and Cam­paign Fi­nance Com­mis­sion. The ad­van­tage was clearly in the politi­cians’ fa­vor. Af­ter all, they wrote the law. Even be­ing the per­pet­ual un­der­dog, we man­aged to nail a few elected of­fi­cials with five-fig- ure fines for think­ing they were above the law, but the game was rigged against us.

The ethics laws have since been up­dated. Lob­by­ists are re­quired to file re­ports more fre­quently but the law doesn’t set a limit on what those lob­by­ists can spend. That is akin to putting lip­stick on a pig. It may make the pig feel more at­trac­tive, but it is still a pig.

There is a new or­ga­ni­za­tion afoot called the Ge­or­gia Al­liance for Ethics Re­form, com­posed of sev­eral govern­ment watchdog groups. The al­liance could be a force to be reck­oned with in strength­en­ing our state’s ethics laws. That is be­cause one of the prin­ci­pals in the group is Bob Irvin, for­mer Repub­li­can law­maker and mi­nor­ity leader in the Ge­or­gia House for six years. Irvin and his col­leagues want new ethics leg­is­la­tion that would cap lob­by­ists’ gift at $100.

Cap­ping lobby gifts at $100 should pose no prob­lem to Com­mon­wealth Re­search As­so­ci­ates or to David Ral­ston. The speaker could still take his fam­ily to Ber­lin next Thanks­giv­ing — the one in Colquitt County (Pop. 595.) They could even ride the bus.

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