Savannah - The Georgia GOP avoided a direct rebuke of House Speaker David Ralston at the state party convention Saturday despite calls from many in the grassroots base to punish the Blue Ridge Republican.
The convention lacked a quorum to approve resolutions when they came up for debate late Saturday, and the convention ended without taking action. But even if a vote took place, it appeared unlikely delegates would have reprimanded Ralston.
That’s because the resolution they would have voted on praised lawmakers for limiting the rights of lawyers who serve in the General Assembly to delay their clients’ court appearances, rather than stronger language that urged him to resign.
That infuriated some conservative activists who handed out bright-red placards as delegates entered the Savannah convention hall that read: “I’m a Georgia voter and I believe Speaker Ralston needs to step down.”
The party also did not consider a resolution criticizing embattled state Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck, who was charged last week with 38 counts of federal fraud charges. Prosecutors say Beck stole more than $2 million from his former employer and funneling some to his campaign; he pleaded not guilty.
The Ralston move comes as little surprise. Outgoing Georgia GOP chair John Watson is a strong ally of Ralston and many in the party’s establishment sought to block the resolution in a committee. An early procedural motion to force a vote on an anti-Ralston resolution failed by a narrow margin.
After the convention ended without a vote on the resolution, Ralston panned critics who have “wasted time and resources selling a misleading, manufactured narrative” targeting him.
The language in the resolution commended the Legislature for “giving judges the authority to deny legislative leave, based in part on a review of the potential harm to alleged victims, which helps ensure the pursuit of justice is not unduly delayed.”
That law was tightened after a joint investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News revealed numerous occasions where he had made claims of legislative business to put off cases.
Alleged victims of some of his law firm’s criminal clients said the speaker’s leave requests had unfairly denied them justice as some cases stretched out for years.
A rape and child molestation case in Towns County involving an evangelist and a 14-year-old girl has been pending for more than five years, with Ralston delaying it at least eight times citing legislative leave.
Last week, another Ralston client charged with enticing and having oral sex with a teenage boy, and sending sexually explicit messages to another teen, was cleared of criminal charges in Gilmer County after years of case delays.
Ralston has said he has done nothing wrong, but named an advisory panel of current and former lawmakers, attorneys, judges and a victims’ advocate to examine whether the state law should be revised.
The changes let lawyer-legislators continue to be automatically granted leave from court when the General Assembly is in session and for one week before and three weeks after.
At most other times, prosecutors, opposing attorneys, judges and other “interested parties” could object to leave requests. Judges would then have to rule on whether to grant leave based on a variety of factors including the age of the case and whether the leave request subverts justice.
The activists who wanted to reprimand Ralston said it was a matter of principle.
“Character is important. Honor is important,” said Ed Palmer, a Coweta County delegate. “Everybody needs their day in court, but to put off these court cases for years - well, that’s a big problem.”
State Rep. Ken Pullin, R-Zebulon, is one of about 10 legislators who signed a House resolution calling for Ralston to resign his post.
“We need to be able to hear from activists about Ralston’s alleged abuse of power,” said Pullin. “These are the ground forces that helped Governor Kemp get elected. And we need to hear from them.”
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