The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State law keeps European junket a mystery

- Bill Torpy Only In The AJC

Everyone likes to take a trip on someone else’s dime. Not that long ago, this newspaper sent me on a some-expenses-paid trip to Macon.

Therefore, I know the excitement felt last November by former Lite Gov. Geoff Duncan and 13 other state officials as they boarded a plane to Germany, followed by a jaunt to Merry Olde England.

The travelers were part of something called the Senate Study Committee on Economic Developmen­t and Internatio­nal Relations. Getting face time with German and English counterpar­ts is a way to grease the skids and bring foreign investment and jobs to Georgia.

And if they’re able to down a plate of Wienerschn­itzel while visiting, who’s to argue?

Well, it turns out some folks are miffed by Duncan’s expedition, one also attended by Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller. The problem, as the naysayers see it, was Duncan and Miller were lame ducks at the time, with just weeks left in office.

Whatever wisdom they gleaned through their wanderlust will hardly be used on behalf of Georgia taxpayers, who paid for their internatio­nal travel. Duncan, who did not run for re-election, will head to CNN to become a political prognostic­ator, and Miller, who lost a bid to become the

lieutenant governor, will return to Gainesvill­e to make a living putting folks in new and quality pre-owned vehicles.

Duncan had a former aide send a statement: “The bipartisan Senate delegation trip helped maintain our state’s competitiv­eness and create more high quality jobs — two of the core accomplish­ments of Geoff Duncan’s tenure as lieutenant governor.” Miller did not get back to me.

Some are using the term “junket,” which, the dictionary says, is “an extravagan­t trip or celebratio­n, in particular one enjoyed by a government official at public expense.” Neil Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club and veteran observer of the human condition at the Gold Dome, suggested that if this is not a junket, then the word should be stricken from the English language.

Such excursions bring outrage. I came to Atlanta in 1990, just after Gwinnett County voters waged an unsuccessf­ul recall effort against then-commission Chair Lillian Webb after revelation­s of a trip to New York where county officials spent $52,000 — including $17,500 on limos.

In more recent memory, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim led a fact-finding business expedition to South Africa in 2017 that cost $90,000. Of that, some $80,000 was in airfare, with $68,000 for Hizzoner and five other city VIPS to luxuriate in seats costing between $9,892 and $12,664.

We know those costs because city officials had to turn over the receipts due to the Open Records Act. Not that city officials wanted to do so. In fact, they hemmed, then they hawed and did a little stone-walling and obfuscatio­n before releasing the records. They did so because they had to. It was the law.

For decades, government officials have had to turn over records because there’s this silly notion that they work for the public good and are therefore accountabl­e to that same public.

That’s not the case with state legislator­s. They are above the laws because, well, because they write the laws.

When Atlanta Journal-constituti­on statehouse reporter James Salzer filed open records requests for the costs of the trip, a government lawyer denied his inquiry, reminding him, “The Georgia General Assembly and its members, staff, committees, and offices are not subject to Georgia’s open records laws.”

It was the bureaucrat­ese way of saying, “Go scratch, Buster.”

Interestin­gly, two statefunde­d security staffers, ostensibly state troopers, made the trip. In 2017, the Atlanta contingent brought two cops from Reed’s detail. I understand that a mayor or high-ranking state official would need guards around here where voters know who they are and might have a beef with them. But overseas, they’re just like anybody else, obscure nobodies.

The Open Records Act has been around for more than half a century and courts have addressed the question, always siding with nondisclos­ure when it comes to the legislatur­e. In 1975, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the “Sunshine Law” was not applicable to the legislativ­e branch. The judges also made a suggestion:

If legislator­s “want to let the sun shine more brilliantl­y and more pervasivel­y upon their deliberati­ons and actions,” the court wrote, “they can do so by adopting rules and procedures applicable to their operations that will accomplish this purpose.”

Lawmakers have still not heeded that advice.

In March 2020, that same court ruled — again — on behalf of legislativ­e secrecy. A few days later, two of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders crafted a bill to open things up. The bill disappeare­d, possibly because COVID soon closed down the world. And possibly because there’s no appetite for that kind of thing.

The senators behind the bill don’t remember much about it. And Kemp’s people did not get back to me.

But in some cases the secrecy really backfires. If they released the gory details of the trip, it would have likely been a one-day-story.

Now, others at the Capitol are tut-tutting and demanding investigat­ions. And Salzer, my AJC pal, keeps digging like a dyspeptic terrier.

 ?? SENATE PRESS OFFICE VIA@GEOFFDUNCA­NGA ?? Former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left) shakes hands with Bavarian State Minister Florian Herrmann during a trip in November with other state officials. The cost of the junket remains a secret.
SENATE PRESS OFFICE VIA@GEOFFDUNCA­NGA Former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left) shakes hands with Bavarian State Minister Florian Herrmann during a trip in November with other state officials. The cost of the junket remains a secret.
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