OPINION: State law keeps European junket a mystery tour

Credit: Georgia Senate Press Office

Credit: Georgia Senate Press Office

Everyone likes to take a trip on someone else’s dime. Not that long ago, this newspaper sent me on a some-expenses-paid trip to Macon.

Therefore, I know the excitement felt last November by former Lite Gov. Geoff Duncan and 13 other state officials as they boarded a plane to Germany, followed by a jaunt to Merry Olde England.

The travelers were part of something called the Senate Study Committee on Economic Development and International Relations. Getting face time with German and English counterparts is a way to grease the skids and bring foreign investment and jobs to Georgia.

And if they’re able to down a plate of Wienerschnitzel while visiting, who’s to argue?

Well, it turns out some folks are miffed by Duncan’s expedition, one also attended by Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller. The problem, as the naysayers see it, was Duncan and Miller were lame ducks at the time, with just weeks left in in office.

Whatever wisdom they gleaned through their wanderlust will hardly be used on behalf of Georgia taxpayers, who paid for their international travel. Duncan, who did not run for re-election, will head to CNN to become a political prognosticator, and Miller, who lost a bid to become the lieutenant governor, will return to Gainesville to make a living putting folks in new and quality pre-owned vehicles.

Duncan had a former aide send a statement: “The bipartisan Senate delegation trip helped maintain our state’s competitiveness and create more high quality jobs — two of the core accomplishments of Geoff Duncan’s tenure as lieutenant governor.” Miller did not get back to me.

Some are using the term “junket,” which, the dictionary says, is “an extravagant trip or celebration, in particular one enjoyed by a government official at public expense.” Neil Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club and veteran observer of the human condition at the Gold Dome, suggested that if this is not a junket, then the word should be stricken from the English language.

Such excursions bring outrage. I came to Atlanta in 1990, just after Gwinnett County voters waged an unsuccessful recall effort against then-Commission Chair Lillian Webb after revelations of a trip to New York where county officials spent $52,000 — including $17,500 on limos.

In more recent memory, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim led a fact-finding business expedition to South Africa in 2017 that cost $90,000. Of that, some $80,000 was in airfare, with $68,000 for Hizzoner and five other city VIPs to luxuriate in seats costing between $9,892 and $12,664.

We know those costs because city officials had to turn over the receipts due to the Open Records Act. Not that city officials wanted to do so. In fact, they hemmed, then they hawed and did a little stone-walling and obfuscation before releasing the records. They did so because they had to. It was the law.

For decades, government officials have had to turn over records because there’s this silly notion that they work for the public good and are therefore accountable to that same public.

That’s not the case with state legislators. They are above the laws because, well, because they write the laws.

When Atlanta Journal-Constitution statehouse reporter James Salzer filed open records requests for the costs of the trip, a government lawyer denied his inquiry, reminding him, “The Georgia General Assembly and its members, staff, committees, and offices are not subject to Georgia’s open records laws.”

It was the bureaucratese way of saying, “Go scratch, Buster.”

Interestingly, two state-funded security staffers, ostensibly state troopers, made the trip. In 2017, the Atlanta contingent brought two cops from Reed’s detail. I understand that a mayor or high-ranking state official would need guards around here where voters know who they are and might have a beef with them. But overseas, they’re just like anybody else, obscure nobodies.

The Open Records Act has been around for more than half a century and courts have addressed the question, always siding with non-disclosure when it comes to the legislature. In 1975, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the “Sunshine Law” was not applicable to the legislative branch. The judges also made a suggestion.

Credit: AJC photp

Credit: AJC photp

If legislators “want to let the sun shine more brilliantly and more pervasively upon their deliberations and actions,” the court wrote, “they can do so by adopting rules and procedures applicable to their operations that will accomplish this purpose.”

Lawmakers have still not heeded that advice.

In March 2020, that same court ruled — again — on behalf of legislative secrecy. A few days later, two of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders crafted a bill to open things up. The bill disappeared, possibly because COVID soon closed down the world. And possibly because there’s no appetite for that kind of thing.

The senators behind the bill don’t remember much about it. And Kemp’s people did not get back to me.

But in some cases the secrecy really backfires. If they released the gory details of the trip, it would have likely been a one-day-story.

Now, others at the Capitol are tut-tutting and demanding investigations. And Salzer, my AJC pal, keeps digging like a dyspeptic terrier.