Gov. Nathan Deal took five staffers to New Orleans at the expense of StudentsFirst, a lobbying organization, to promote his education agenda. In 2011, Deal signed an executive order banning most gifts from lobbyists. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Lobbyist paid Deal’s trip to La. schools

Governor’s own executive order bans most lobbyist gifts. Spokesman claims an exemption.

Gov. Nathan Deal sidestepped his own executive order banning most gifts from lobbyists when he allowed a pro-charter schools group and top contributor to the state GOP, StudentsFirst, to pay for a legislative fact-finding trip to New Orleans last month.

The two-day trip for Deal and other officials, estimated to cost $14,336, offers fresh evidence of how elastic Georgia’s ethics policies can be in the hands of the elected officials who make them.

Deal’s office claims the trip was allowed despite the governor’s own executive order that limits lobbyist gifts to $25. The order, signed his first day in office and intended to set an example for state government, places strict limits on lobbyist spending for executive branch staff. Food, travel and other expenses paid for by lobbyists are only allowed when they “permit the employee’s participation in official or professional duties” and even then, the order says, “the preferred practice is for agencies and not third parties to pay such expenses.”

But Deal looked to StudentsFirst, a California-based nonprofit, to pay for himself, five staffers, nine legislators, and State School Superintendent Richard Woods to go to the Crescent City and promote his proposed education reforms. StudentsFirst paid for the travel, the hotel, a charter bus and meals — including dinner at New Orleans’ famous Galatoire’s restaurant.

“The executive order governing us clearly allows for outside support of this type of advocacy for official policy,” said spokesman Brian Robinson.

Robinson initially told the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it had an outdated version of Deal’s order before he pointed to the language about an employee attending a meeting related to his or her official duties. He bristled when the AJC quoted back to him the order’s stated preference that executive agencies, including the governor’s office, pay their own way.

“A third party advocate — one that in no way financially benefits if the law is enacted — agreed to pay for the trip. The executive order allows for that,” he said. “The group jumped through every hoop to make sure it was legal and approved beforehand. And everything was disclosed on the back end.”

Indeed, a StudentsFirst lawyer asked the state ethics commission to sign off on the trip in a Feb. 9 letter suggesting it was OK under another exemption — one that allows executive branch officials to accept gifts “for purposes of tradition, ceremony or inter-governmental relations.”

But the commission couldn’t give such approval because it doesn’t have jurisdiction over executive orders from the governor.

The commission told StudentsFirst that it was OK to take the state legislators on the trip because the 2013 state ethics law, which banned gifts to lawmakers over $75, allows legislative travel to attend educational meetings.

The AJC paid travel for three journalists to go to New Orleans and report on the trip, which spotlighted Louisiana’s ability to take control of struggling schools. Deal backs a similar plan in Georgia, Senate Bill 133 and Senate Resolution 287, and his legislation could come up for a vote in the House as early as Wednesday.

The reporters traveled with Deal’s group while in Louisiana and accepted three meals and seats on the charter bus at a total cost of $150 each. At the AJC’s request, StudentsFirst invoiced the reporters for the expense.

Robinson said Deal has never before relied on a lobbyist to pay for an out-of-town trip, and said the governor’s $6 million budget does not include money for this sort of travel.

“The governor’s office isn’t funded to pay for legislative fact finding trips,” Robinson said.

Michael O’Sullivan, state director for StudentsFirst’s Georgia affiliate and a former lobbyist for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, disclosed the spending in early March and went with the governor and his party to New Orleans.

O’Sullivan did not report — and was not required to report — what StudentsFirst also paid for four Deal’s staffers to go on the trip because state law only requires the disclosure of lobbying expenditures on “public officers” and those staffers did not meet the legal definition.

O’Sullivan said his group “offered up” the trip to Georgia leaders as a way to educate lawmakers about the successes other states were seeing with direct intervention in failing schools.

“It was the type of thing where we’re happy to help with this,” he said. “It was an educational experience. It wasn’t a rah-rah (trip). It truly was facts, figures, understanding. It was truly an educational endeavor.”

StudentsFirst, founded by former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee, promotes school choice, charter schools and state intervention in failing schools. The organization first registered to lobby in Georgia in 2011. It has 10 registered lobbyists, including agents with the powerful and politically connected law firm Troutman Sanders.

Georgia is one of 10 states where StudentsFirst has launched a state-level effort to promote its agenda and it has not limited its activities to lobbying.

In the 2014 election cycle, the group gave $250,000 to the Georgia Republican Party — the largest non-party donation the Georgia GOP received all cycle. In the last three years, StudentsFirst has flooded the state with $1.3 million in campaign donations.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, who went on the trip, declined to comment on the StudentsFirst’s sponsorship, except to say that he received a notice of the cost in his legislative office and planned to pay the $898.21 bill himself.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said she saw no problems with StudentsFirst paying the tab for the trip, noting the ethics law’s exception for “educational” trips with in the United States.

“I think that educational trips are important especially for something of this magnitude,” she said. “I did not have objection to that.”

The New Orleans trip was not the last for StudentsFirst.

Last week, the group made a one-day field trip to Memphis to view a similar school reform effort there, taking along Rep. Margaret Kaiser, D-Atlanta; Rep. Dustin Hightower, R-Carrollton; Erin Hames, Deal’s deputy chief of staff; Bonnie Holliday, executive director of the State Charter Schools Commission; Martha Ann Todd, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement; and, former University of Georgia President Charles Knapp, head of Deal’s Education Reform Commission.

The deadline for StudentsFirst to disclose the costs of that trip will not come for another two weeks.