The association that lobbies for Georgia’s nursing homes, which get more than $1 billion a year in funding from the state, has hired Gov. Nathan Deal’s son-in-law and House Speaker David Ralston’s niece.
Clint Wilder, Deal’s son-in-law, started work Jan. 31 as the Georgia Health Care Association’s director of program development, according to the group’s president, Jon Howell. The association hired Sarah Denise Ralston as an intern, and she is registered to lobby at the state Capitol.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that Ralston’s son, Matt, is being paid $1,000 a month to intern for GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group, one of the statehouse’s most prominent lobbying groups.
Howell said his association has been expanding to include assisted living and other health care organizations. The group has been seeking a program development director since December and advertised the new position on the group’s website, he said. The job includes working to build the association’s membership.
Howell said he didn’t talk to the governor about the job and that Wilder was well qualified.
“He’s extremely well educated ... he has some health care consulting experience,” Howell said. “He is a good fit.”
Wilder has a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s in business administration from Tulane University. He formerly worked with BearingPoint, a management and technology consulting firm.
Wilder and Deal’s daughter, Carrie, filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after the failure of their Habersham County sporting goods store. Deal had invested in the store and its failure left him with $2.1 million in debt, which has recently been restructured.
A U.S. bankruptcy judge in September reopened the Wilders’ bankruptcy case after it was revealed that Clint Wilder had failed to disclose a prior bankruptcy in 2001. The judge later revoked the 2009 bankruptcy, leaving Wilder vulnerable to creditors. The judge closed the case again in November.
Howell said he knew the hire would raise eyebrows.
“We knew who his father-in-law was,” Howell said. “We knew there would be some perception that he is getting preferential treatment because of his connections. We wanted to make sure it was clear there was going to be no involvement down at the Capitol.”
Howell said while Ralston’s niece is working with the lobbying group, “An intern is not doing the heavy lifting.”
He declined to say how much Wilder and Ralston are being paid. Attempts to reach Wilder and Sarah Ralston for comment were unsuccessful.
The nursing home lobby has a lot at stake every year at the statehouse. Most nursing home residents in Georgia are on government health care programs, and the state spends more than $1 billion a year on their care.
During most of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s two terms, the organization paid former state senator and onetime Georgia Republican Party chairman Rusty Paul to lobby for them. Paul had close ties to Perdue, and the association dropped him as a lobbyist at the end of last year.
After Deal was elected, he appointed Neil Pruitt Jr., CEO of UHS-Pruitt, which runs more than 70 skilled nursing and assisted living facilities in the Southeast, to his transition team. Pruitt is past chairman of the Georgia Health Care Association and he, his family and company donated about $45,000 to Deal’s campaign for governor.
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor had nothing to do with Wilder’s hiring.
“This is obviously a very big business,” Robinson said. “I’m not speaking for Clint Wilder, but he has experience in big business.”
Marshall Guest, Ralston’s spokesman, said of the speaker’s niece, “Sarah, a young person with a degree in political science, has had an interest in government and the political process for a long time now.”
Debbie Dooley, a state organizer of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said the arrangements give the impression that state officials are using their positions to benefit their family members. The special interests involved, she said, also appear to be currying favor with top leaders.
“It doesn’t matter which party is in charge. These kinds of things go on at the Capitol all the time, and it needs to change.”
The Tea Party Patriots have joined with several other groups to create a new organization aimed at strengthening state ethics laws. The Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform also includes Common Cause Georgia, consumer advocate Georgia Watch, and government watchdog Ray Boyd.
Dooley said the Wilder and Ralston hirings illustrate why changes are necessary.
“This is just pretty disturbing,” she said. “This will show why we need tough ethics reform.”