Ten Georgia Republican legislators joined an effort Friday to oust their leader, House Speaker David Ralston, because of allegations that he abused his power to delay cases against criminal defendants he represents.
The dissident lawmakers signed a resolution asking Ralston to resign after an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found he frequently delayed criminal cases by claiming court dates interfered with his legislative duties.
Ralston, a defense attorney, rejected calls for his resignation from the group led by state Rep. David Clark. He said he’s done nothing wrong.
“People can take a look at it and sort through the fact from the fiction and see what’s there,” said Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge who has led the 180-member state House since 2010. “If people want to drop the resolution, it’s certainly a free country to do that.”
Ralston asked judges to reschedule court proceedings 57 times over a two-year period, using a law that requires judges to defer to his legislative duties, according to the AJC and Channel 2 investigation.
Clark, one of Ralston’s committee chairmen, said he couldn’t stand by and watch while victims were being denied justice.
Clark said he was especially disturbed by the case of a 14-year-old girl who alleged that a traveling evangelist raped and molested her. Ralston, who represents the evangelist, delayed that case in Towns County Superior Court at least eight times, citing legislative duties and sessions.
“I can’t stay silent when something is being done wrong, especially when these victims are being hurt by our speaker, who has abused his power,” said Clark, who represents Buford and was named chairman of the Interstate Cooperation Committee last month by Ralston. “I’m hoping people have courage and the spine to do what’s right.”
The House didn’t publicly discuss or take action on the resolution during its legislative session Friday. Resolutions require a majority to pass.
The resolution sent two important signals: First, that there’s a faction of conservatives upset enough with Ralston that they were willing to risk retribution. Secondly, that the faction was not widespread enough yet to deal any significant damage to the speaker.
Notably, aside from Clark, there were no committee chairmen who joined his effort. And Ralston’s leadership team — most notably Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, sometimes considered a rival — steered clear of making any public moves to oppose him.
Instead, she joined a number of state leaders to praise Ralston’s decade-long track record. Former Govs. Roy Barnes and Nathan Deal — like Ralston, lawyers — both called the AJC separately to voice support for him.
So did Gov. Brian Kemp, who said through a spokeswoman that he looks forward to continuing to work with Ralston, and Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller, who praised Ralston’s “diligence, perseverance and commitment.”
Several members of the group that joined Clark’s revolt said they were disgusted by what they learned from the AJC/Channel 2 investigation.
State Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, said he had an “uneasy feeling” after meeting with Ralston to discuss the report. And he said he was unimpressed with Ralston’s answers to questions in an interview that aired Thursday on Channel 2.
“I’ve spoken with a couple of the victims, and there is no sense of justice for them,” he said. “I felt compelled by a sense of duty to call for the speaker to put the gavel down and tend to those cases so justice can finally be served for hurting families.”
State Rep. Ken Pullin, a first-term Republican from Zebulon, said he was particularly struck by the same alleged rape case that bothered Clark.
“She should be able to have a day in court, and it appears Speaker Ralston is using his position to continually delay her case and others,” Pullin said. “His actions may be legal according to state law, but they’re not ethical or moral in my opinion.”
While Ralston has held power for a decade, he once mounted a challenge to his predecessor for the speaker’s chair, one of the most powerful political positions in Georgia.
In 2008, Ralston rallied House GOP colleagues who were upset with the hot-headed approach of then-Speaker Glenn Richardson, the first Republican to hold that position in the modern era.
Richardson had carved out a reputation for being combative, particularly with members of his own party. He led the effort to overturn vetoes by Gov. Sonny Perdue and called on voters to oust Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle when the Senate blocked his tax-cut plan.
Enter Ralston, who cast himself as a consensus-builder who would take a more conciliatory approach. He launched a coup attempt.
“I don’t believe good leadership is grounded in fear or intimidation or fear of retribution,” he said at a GOP caucus meeting.
His revolt was crushed — he lost 75-25 — and Richardson pledged to caucus members that he had “learned from the mistakes” he had made. But his tenure was short-lived.
A year later, the House was thrown into chaos that began with Richardson’s admission he had tried to take his own life, and it ended with his ex-wife’s revelation that the speaker had had an affair with a lobbyist.
Ralston then defeated two challengers to win the House’s top job.