Last year, Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (R) wrote an ethics reform law he claimed would completely ban lobbyist gifts to state legislators. But a 2013 fundraising letter he authored took advantage of a loophole by asking for businesses and lobbyists to contribute to a “scholarship fund” to pay expenses for legislators to attend the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) pro-corporate conferences.
In 2013, Ralston wrote the state’s ethics reform law and eliminated all direct gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers. At the time, he said it was “vital that we as public servants always strive to earn and hold the trust of the public,” adding, “We do that by enacting true and complete reform of our ethics laws, and avoiding gimmicks cloaked as reform by those that seek a platform and relevance.”
But his law left a loophole allowing lobbyists to give money directly to a tax-exempt pro-corporate group like ALEC — and for ALEC to then spend the money providing travel expenses (“scholarships“) to legislators. And months after claiming his bill would “avoid gimmicks,” Ralston asked the state’s business community and lobbyists to do just that. His fundraising solicitation, sent out on ALEC letterhead, asked that they contribute to the group’s Georgia Legislative Expense Reimbursement Fund:
I believe participation in ALEC helps Georgia legislators understand the impact that state and national policies have on our businesses. Given the tough environment that Georgia businesses operate in, the legislative membership needs this knowledge now more than ever.
Your support of the scholarship fund is critical, enabling Georgia legislators to join and attend the annual meetings. Please note that 100% of the raised funds are tax-deductible and are for ALEC expenses directly related to education efforts for legislators.
Bryan Long, executive director of the progressive group Better Georgia, told ThinkProgress that this letter shows Ralston’s bill was “never intended to stop corporate and lobbyist giving.”
“When most people think about non-profit tax deductions, they think about giving to churches and charities. They never imagine corporations and lobbyists giving money to our elected officials for direct tax breaks,” he said. “If Speaker Ralston and his House members want to better understand the impact policies have on businesses, he should talk directly to Georgia business owners instead of going to ALEC conferences that are paid for by lobbyists.”
A spokesman for Ralston did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry.
Over his career, Ralston has been among the state’s top recipients of lobbyist gifts, including a $17,000-plus European trip. He also received thousands of dollars in “scholarships” to attend ALEC events — though because the pro-corporate organization is not registered to lobby in Georgia, these are not considered lobbyist gifts.
While Ralston’s letter suggested that businesses should ante up because of the state’s tough business climate, earlier that month he boasted to the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce that a national magazine had named Georgia the state with the best climate for business, a designation he called a “really big deal.”