An exhaustive review of David Ralston’s court cases turned up such a mountain of documented delays, the independent researcher contends it points to a stark conclusion: He’s been slowing down the justice system on purpose.
Since Ralston became Georgia’s House Speaker in 2010, as a private attorney he’s cited his legislative responsibilities to delay 226 cases a total of 966 times, former FBI agent Derek Somerville said at a news conference Wednesday, where he unveiled the results of more than two months of his courthouse research into Ralston’s caseload.
“I don’t see how anybody can faithfully hold the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives with this conduct in the public sector,” Somerville said. “It’s beyond my grasp that the State Bar in Georgia would allow anyone to practice law like this.”
Ralston did not return messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, but in an interview with WSB Radio and Channel 2 Action News, he was dismissive of Somerville’s work and the news conference.
“I understand he is not an attorney and admittedly does not understand the legal system or the criminal justice system,” Ralston said. “I also understand they spent over an hour and they didn’t have anything critical to say about my performance as speaker. I think they just think I’m a bad lawyer.”
Ralston said he has never abused legislative privilege and works all the time to meet his responsibilities.
Somerville, who's now the CEO of a consulting firm for the energy industry, said he set out to review as many of Ralston's criminal and civil cases as he could because he was livid at findings by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News about Ralston's delays. He said he wound up reviewing nearly a thousand case files in eight North Georgia counties.
Much of what he uncovered shows an attorney-politician taking on far more cases than he could handle, given his truncated calendar with days and weeks blocked off for his speaker responsibilities. He requested so much leave last year, he left himself with only 87 working days and only three intact five-day weeks, according to Somerville’s research presented Wednesday. The AJC did not independently verify his data.
Opposing attorneys repeatedly complained to judges about the speaker’s use of legislative leave. “At the time of Mr. Ralton’s entry, this case was set for trial before this Honorable Court,” one frustrated lawyer wrote to a judge in 2011. “The movants can think of no reason for Mr. Ralston’s involvement in this case other than as a deliberate delay tactic.”
That same year, an attorney in another case went further. “Apparently,” the lawyer wrote, “Mr. Ralston markets his ability to indefinitely delay the resolution of cases as a way to attract more clients.” The attorney, Simon Bloom, offered no evidence of this and would not answer questions when contacted by the AJC.
State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, called the news conference along with government watchdog William Perry. Clark introduced a resolution during this year's legislative session calling on Ralston to resign as speaker — which only nine of his Republican colleagues signed — and he made that call again on Wednesday.
“David Ralston used his power as speaker to abuse the right to justice of many alleged victims,” Clark said.
Somerville told the AJC after the news conference that he plans to turn his research over to the State Bar of Georgia for possible investigation. He said he will also hand it to the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, because he believes several judges failed in their duties by not reining in Ralston.
But Somerville also dug up a civil case where a judge held Ralston and his client in contempt and fined them thousands of dollars for failing to respond to discovery requests. The opposing attorney in that Towns County case complained about Ralston’s double duties and alleged he hadn’t returned any of his calls or other communications in more than two years.
Ralston told WSB such contempt charges are “not terribly uncommon.”
“That was for not responding to discovery,” he said. “I don’t know how that relates to legislative leave.”
Somerville said his research also turned up troubling information in the case of Derek Key, who in 2009 was accused of child molestation and related charges in Cherokee and Gilmer counties.
In 2010, Key was rearrested for violating terms of his Cherokee County bond when he was seen hanging out at a football game at a local middle school. He was then granted a new bond with the understanding that he would avoid any “area where minors congregate.”
However, social media posts and news stories in late 2012 appear to show that while both cases were pending, Key traveled to Haiti to do Christian mission work and visited an orphanage. It’s unclear if Key had court approval for the trip.
The child molestation charges in Cherokee County were ultimately dismissed following numerous delays by Ralston. The Gilmer case is still pending.
But Ralston told WSB Wednesday he expects the Gilmer district attorney to dismiss Key’s case next week because the family and the victim have been wanting that for four or five years. One of the victims, when contacted by the AJC, had said it’s been so long since he heard from prosecutors, he thought it already had been resolved.
In a joint investigation, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported in February that House Speaker David Ralston used the privileges of his office to repeatedly delay court cases for clients of his private law practice. Using a state law that allows legislators to put off court dates if they notify a judge that their lawmaker duties require them to be elsewhere, Ralston delayed cases for years for clients accused of child molestation, child abuse, domestic violence, aggravated assault and drunken driving. Further reporting by the AJC revealed Ralston played a part in expanding the law in 2006 so that legislative leave could be claimed year-round, not just during legislative sessions.
Though Ralston blasted the news reports, he formed an ad hoc committee to suggest changes to the legislative leave law. House Bill 502, which is now awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, will give judges the power to override legislative leave through a four-part test. But alleged victims and opposing parties in Ralston’s cases are skeptical, since judges have already had the ability to push back on the speaker, but rarely did.
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News