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Lawmaker’s lobbying on MARTA contract raises ethics concerns

Georgia ethics law prohibits outgoing Rep. Earl Ehrhart from lobbying state government for at least a year after he leaves office this month.

But that prohibition didn’t stop the Powder Springs Republican from ginning up business linked to MARTA, an entity he could influence in his duties as a state lawmaker and in his new role on the the Atlanta-Region Transit Link (ATL) Authority.

In fact, documents obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveal Ehrhart’s lobbying firm has played a critical role in pressuring MARTA to do business with his client, Gresham Transportation Services, for a minority subcontract worth millions of dollars.

He and his colleagues at the firm Taylor English Decisions lobbied members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and others, arguing that MARTA had failed to comply with federal minority contracting requirements. All of this was perfectly legal and done last year while Ehrhart served in the legislature.

Later, the FTA launched an investigation of MARTA’s compliance with federal contracting rules. And while MARTA says it complies with the rules, it moved to rebid the paratransit contract after the lobbying firm ratcheted up pressure in Washington.

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Ethics watchdogs say there’s nothing in Georgia law that prohibits state lawmakers from using their influence at the federal level. But they’re troubled by what they see as a blurring of the lines between Ehrhart’s public service and private lobbying.

As a lawmaker, Ehrhart has had plenty of sway over legislation affecting MARTA, including a new law that made sweeping changes to transit funding and planning in metro Atlanta. Among other things, the law created the new ATL authority, which must approve MARTA’s future expansion plans. Ehrhart will join the authority board later this month.

And while Ehrhart did not seek re-election and will leave the General Assembly this month, he’ll have daily contact with at least one lawmaker: His wife, Ginny Ehrhart, will be sworn in as his replacement.

William Perry, executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said Ehrhart’s influence over MARTA as a lawmaker and an ATL Board member makes him a lobbyist with unusual leverage.

“It gives them a huge advantage, when a person you’re trying to convince to do something knows you’re going to be in a position of power over them,” Perry said.

The fact that it’s all legal, Perry said, is further evidence that Georgia has weak ethics laws.

MARTA declined to comment on Ehrhart’s lobbying. Ehrhart declined an interview request from the AJC, but issued a written statement saying questions about his lobbying are “just an attempt to divert attention away (from) the very important issue of upholding the contractual obligations to a minority business.”

The contracting dispute stems from MARTA’s 2015 decision to outsource its paratransit shuttle service for the elderly and disabled to a private firm, MV Transportation. The company’s three-year, $116.9 million contract includes a goal that 20 percent of the work should be subcontracted to minority- and women-owned companies, dubbed “disadvantaged business enterprises.”

Initially, Atlanta-based Gresham Transportation was supposed to get most of that business. But that never happened.

In public documents about the dispute, MV Transportation said Gresham failed to maintain the insurance needed to do the work. Gresham said that’s because MV Transportation failed to provide the work – and the revenue – needed to pay for the insurance.

In 2017, an arbitrator sided with Gresham, and MV Transportation later paid the company nearly $560,000 to cover lost profits and costs it incurred in anticipation of providing paratransit service.

A federal judge upheld the arbitrator’s ruling. But the judge found Gresham – having been made whole by the settlement – had no legal grounds to pursue additional work through its contract with MV Transportation.

That hasn’t stopped Gresham from trying.

The company and its owner, Stefan Gresham, have pressed MARTA to force MV Transportation to honor its original contract with the company. MARTA so far has declined, saying MV Transportation found another minority-owned firm to try to meet its 20 percent goal.

But Gresham hasn’t given up. Federal records show it paid $25,000 to Taylor English Decisions last year to lobby federal officials on the issue. Ehrhart joined the Atlanta-based firm in April as its CEO.

A month later, he and his new colleagues met with U.S. Reps. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, and Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, as well as members of a House subcommittee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. They also met with the staffs of Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, and with representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration.

Those meetings apparently were productive. Based on a complaint by Gresham, the FTA launched an investigation of MARTA’s compliance with federal rules designed to ensure that minority- and women-owned businesses get a share of government contracts.

MARTA has said it “is in full compliance with current Federal Transit Administration regulations” and welcomes the agency’s review.

Nonetheless, the MARTA Board of Directors recently voted to rebid the paratransit service, though MV Transportation has two possible one-year renewals left on its contract. The company may yet keep the contract, but MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker has said he decided to reopen it because MV Transportation is not meeting its minority contracting goal.

MV Transportation has said it’s trying to meet the goal, but it declined further comment this week.

Jonathan Crumly, a principal at Ehrhart’s firm, said it took the involvement of Isakson and Johnson to force MARTA to take Gresham’s complaint seriously.

“We’re happy to see they’re trying to address the issue,” Crumly said.

The merits of the contracting dispute aside, ethics advocates questioned whether Ehrhart should be allowed to lobby on the issue, given his elected office and appointment to the ATL Authority. House Speaker David Ralston appointed Ehrhart to the board effective Jan. 14, when his legislative term expires.

Rick Thompson, former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, said Georgia’s ethics laws are among the weakest in the country.

One problem, he said, is that it leaves it to lawmakers themselves to determine whether they have any conflicts that would require them to recuse themselves. Thompson said it’s easy for lawmakers to rationalize their behavior.

As for Ehrhart, Thompson said: “He knows the rules, and he knows how far to push them. He’s been around a long time.”

Ehrhart is retiring after 30 years in the General Assembly. Though he’s accusing MARTA of violating federal minority contracting requirements, he’s long opposed affirmative action policies as a lawmaker.

Ehrhart sees no ethical problem with his lobbying federal authorities on the issue. He noted the lobbying came after his final regular legislative session as a state representative.

“It is neither illegal nor unethical for me to advocate for the federal civil rights of a Georgia small businessman,” he said in his statement. “This federal civil rights issue has nothing to do with my role as a retiring state legislator or my position on the ATL Board.”

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