By Joshua Demarest
FCN regional staff
Ga. Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is facing mounting criticism from both sides of the aisle over his use of legislative leave to delay court cases.
At an April 17 press conference in Atlanta, State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, and former FBI agent and Forsyth County resident Derek Somerville presented research in which Somerville documented 1,091 separate legislative leave continuances across 279 cases.
A legislative leave continuance is a court order that a lawyer who also serves in the legislature can apply for when his or her legislative duties conflict with scheduled court appearances. According to Somerville, 53 percent of Ralston’s continuances were applied for when the State House of Representatives was not in session.
“Last year,” calculated Somerville, “after taking no less than 89 days of legislative leave outside of the general and special session, and after accounting for state holidays, Speaker Ralston left himself with only 87 working days and only three intact weeks (full five-day weeks) to accommodate court orders to appear, to respond to discovery requests, and generally to tend to his case load obligations.”
According to Ralston’s critics, the Speaker intentionally abused his position to delay criminal and civil trials to benefit his clients.
William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, claims that “this is the worst abuse of power I’ve seen in almost 25 years of working in politics, including the last nine as a political ethics watchdog.”
Ralston, on the other hand, insists that he has done nothing wrong.
“I’ve never had a judge or prosecutor say to me that they’ve had concerns or had problems with the way I was utilizing the leave,” said Ralston. “My understanding is there was no accusation that any of those days were not legitimate, it’s just the number of days, and they didn’t have anything critical to say about my performance as Speaker.”
“Unfortunately, the facts and a mountain of documented court records don’t appear to support this statement. The most poignant and unreported example being when, on Oct. 7 of 2015, David Ralston … was held in contempt of court by Judge Stanley Gunter in Towns County for ‘willful disobedience of this court’s order granting plaintiff motion to compel discovery,’” he said.
Ralston is quick to dismiss the criticism as a political ploy.
“Well I think it was two people who, frankly, do not understand the legal system … and have decided, for whatever reason, that this is a pathway to relevance,” said Ralston. “Mr. Clark will have to answer for his own motives.”
But momentum is building to get Speaker Ralston to step away from his leadership role and legislative seat, and several other Representatives have signed onto HR 328, a resolution encouraging Ralston to resign, including Rep. Sheri Gilligan, R-Cumming.
“By any measure, Ralston’s number of legislative leave requests is extreme and a clear exploitation of the intent of the law,” Gilligan said in a statement.
Gilligan said that she would have preferred to quietly deal with Speaker Ralston’s abuses instead of launching a public debate. However, Ralston has repeatedly shown he is fully intending to remain at his post as Speaker of the House.
“The speaker is elected by the House majority party,” said Gilligan, “so the House Republicans and the State Republican Party should make the stand to force his resignation as Speaker.”
Rep. Gilligan said, “I call on David Ralston to do the right thing and resign his Speakership position effective immediately.”
The Forsyth County News contributed to this report.