David Fige of Woodstock carried a photo of his 15-year-old daughter to the State Capitol Thursday and into the chaos of Crossover Day, the day most bills must pass at least one chamber if they are to pass into law.
Fige’s daughter, Katelyn, is four years in remission from a brain tumor, though the odds are still against her. He and other advocates had hoped that a bill declaring Sept. 1 Childhood Cancer Awareness Day would bring raise awareness — and money — for their cause.
Instead, he said the bill was a collateral victim of the controversy over House Speaker David Ralston’s use of a legislative exemption to delay court dates in his private law practice.
“It’s affecting kids like my daughter,” he said. “The cancer community is up in arms.”
Some Republican House members who signed onto a resolution calling for Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to resign over his use of legislative leave also said they have seen their bills derailed as a result. The childhood cancer bill, House Bill 376, is sponsored by Rep. Sheri Gilligan, who signed the resolution. Her bill received a favorable vote in committee but hasn’t moved since.
Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen denied the speaker was holding up passage of any bills as a way to get back at his critics. “No, that’s not what is happening here,” he said.
McMichen said a similar bill to HB 376 also failed to pass last year, well before the current controversy. “The speaker has neither directly nor indirectly hindered passage of HB 376,” he said.
But Gilligan, R-Cumming, said she’s hasn’t even been able to get a meeting with Rules Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, to discuss the bill.
“I have even offered to have my name removed so somebody else could carry it forward,” she said. “You can infer from that what you will.”
Powell, in an email to the AJC, said bills get left behind on Crossover Day for a lot of reasons, but the speaker has not instructed him to block legislation by those who signed the resolution. “Nor have I had any conversation with the speaker about blocking their legislation,” Powell said.
Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, said he knew opposing Ralston would mean he would have to “define victory narrowly” this session.
“I have two bills in Rules that are going to die,” he said last week, referring to the House Rules Committee through which bills must pass to get a full House vote. “I knew it was going to cost us something, but the goal to me is seeing that justice is served for these victims.”
Rep. Ken Pullin, R-Zebulon, said nothing so specific happened to him and his local bills got through. That’s because he didn’t have much of a legislative agenda for his freshman year – rather wanting to spend this time learning the ways of the legislature.
“Just to be honest, the Capitol is ruled by fear and intimidation. It’s all fear, and it’s all intimidation, by the leadership,” Pullin said. “And that’s probably the most disturbing thing, from my perspective, just going to politics my first year.”
State Rep. Matt Gurtler, R-Tiger, has been in the doghouse with Ralston for the past two years, and both Ralston and former Gov. Nathan Deal supported Gurtler’s opponent in last year’s Republican primary. So Gurtler had little to lose by adding his name to the resolution. But it’s clear that other signees have faced retribution after coming forward, he said.
While that blocking usually happens at the committee level, Gurtler said it’s the speaker who’s pulling the strings.
“If we have one man, the speaker, basically dictating to every single member of the House that if you don’t do what I’m going to tell you to do, you’re going to have retribution, I’m going to get you out of here – that’s not really representative type of government,” Gurtler said. “What we have is more tyrannical or dictatorial.”
Ralston has weathered criticism from the edges of his own party since an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News joint investigation found he regularly cites unspecified legislative business to delay court appearances.
That has resulted in some cases being delayed as long as a decade, the AJC investigation found. One man’s DUI case has been pending since 2008, and a man charged with enticing a child for indecent purposes has been awaiting trial since 2009.
Ralston has denied he uses the legislative exemption inappropriately, saying his use of the automatic delay is necessary to meet the demands of his state job. While he has admitted no wrongdoing, he did name an advisory panel of current and former lawmakers, judges and attorneys to look at the law and recommend changes.
Some of Ralston’s critics represent a faction of the Republican base that believes he uses his power to silence the more socially conservative wing of the GOP. Questions about the speaker’s use of the legislative exemption only added to their distaste for the longtime legislator.
“No one is above the law,” Barbara Hartman, a Republican organizer from Johns Creek, said. “If David Ralston gets away with this behavior … it sets a dangerous precedent for Georgia.”
Some people aggrieved by Ralston’s court delays were accompanied by Hartman and activist Debbie Dooley last week as they tried to put more pressure on the speaker. Ellijay resident Sheryl Shinn was among them.
“We need justice. We need Ralston to step down,” she said. “He’s ruined my life.”
In Shinn’s case, Ralston represented one of her former business associates in a civil suit over the disposition of some expensive computer hardware. Shinn filed the suit in 2007, she said.
“It’s been postponed over 20 times,” she said. Over the years she has lost her attorney, declared bankruptcy and lives off her Social Security income, she said.
The small group set up along the rope line outside the House chambers that separates the public from lawmakers to make their case to topple one of the most influential men in Georgia politics.
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, chairman of the House Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee, listened politely but was unmoved.
“David has been a friend of mine since before I came down here,” he said. “I know him. The person you are describing is not the person I know.”
Hawkins closed the conversation as Dooley pressed him with details of Ralston’s use of legislative leave. “We are going to address this,” he said.
The panel Ralston appointed has yet to meet. On Thursday, the House quietly passed House Bill 502, which made minor edits to the current state law governing court delays for state officials. The bill could serve as a vehicle for any charges to the law recommended by the panel.