Duncan, Miller led state delegation to Europe just before leaving office

State won’t disclose how much it cost taxpayers
Former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan shakes hands with Bavarian State Minister Florian Herrmann in Munich, Germany. Duncan led a group of 14 Georgians, including six state senators, on an economic development trip to Germany and the United Kingdom just before he left office. Photo credit Georgia Senate Press Office via Geoff Duncan's Twitter account.

Credit: Georgia Senate Press Office

Credit: Georgia Senate Press Office

Former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan shakes hands with Bavarian State Minister Florian Herrmann in Munich, Germany. Duncan led a group of 14 Georgians, including six state senators, on an economic development trip to Germany and the United Kingdom just before he left office. Photo credit Georgia Senate Press Office via Geoff Duncan's Twitter account.

Two months before leaving office and after their replacements had been elected, then-Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller led a state delegation on a taxpayer-funded economic development trip to Europe, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

There is no way for taxpayers to know how much the weeklong trip to Germany and the United Kingdom cost. Legislative lawyers rejected requests from the AJC to disclose how much state money was spent on the trip, citing the fact that the General Assembly exempted itself from the Open Records Act that other government officials must follow.

The group — which included two state-funded security staffers and other taxpayer-funded employees — made the trip from Nov. 12 to 19 to Munich, Stuttgart and London as part of a Senate Study Committee on Economic Development and International Relations. The legislation creating the committee was filed and passed by the Georgia Senate at the end of the 2022 session and the panel was chaired by Miller.

Such committees typically meet in between sessions and make reports on their findings that are often turned into legislation. It’s unclear whether any legislation will come out of the Duncan- and Miller-led committee since both left office in January.

Duncan didn’t run for reelection, while Miller ran unsuccessfully to replace him, losing in the Republican primary to Burt Jones, who was sworn in as lieutenant governor in January.

Miller did not return messages seeking comment. Duncan referred the AJC to a former staffer, who released a statement about the trip.

“Georgia is the best state in the country to do business in part because of our strong relationships with private sector companies across the world,” the statement said. “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 and head of the state Senate.”

When told about the trip, Neill Herring, who has been lobbying at the Capitol on environmental interests for decades, called it a junket.

“This is why they invented the word. If this is not a junket, there is no junket,” Herring said. “They aren’t even elected anymore. This is Joe Citizen with the state credit card and no limit.”

Ines Owens, spokeswoman for Jones, Duncan’s replacement, said, “The lieutenant governor finds it disheartening that two outgoing elected officials would take a taxpayer-funded European vacation knowing they will have zero influence on future economic development opportunities.”

On the move

The AJC reviewed 1,300 pages of emails received through an Open Records Act request from the Department of Economic Development. The documents showed the trip was in the works for months, with emails repeatedly going back and forth between Duncan’s staffers and those helping to facilitate the effort in Germany and the United Kingdom, including state of Georgia economic development officials in those countries.

According to a report compiled by Duncan’s office and signed by Miller, the group met with government and business officials, toured company headquarters, studios, training schools and other facilities, and attended receptions. Some of the companies they met with have business interests in Georgia, such as Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. In London they met with leaders of the House of Commons and House of Lords, according to the report.

State Sen. Sheikh Rahman, a Lawrenceville Democrat, also went on the trip, which he called a “working visit” that was filled with meetings and offered no real time for tourism.

It was interesting to learn how in Germany, with their technical college and apprenticeship program, (students) work with the chamber of commerce and some of the businesses,” Rahman said. “Students stay (locally) and can start working straight from high school. Then companies don’t have to recruit because (the students) are already trained. We can look at ways to do the same in Georgia.”

Most of the final full day in London — Nov. 18 — was a “free” day with little on the agenda, according to the lieutenant governor’s office report, although there was a “working lunch” with a local economic development adviser to the state.

It turns out there was a reason little was scheduled that Friday.

“Fridays are difficult in Westminster as this is typically the day when many people work from home and MPs and staff leave London to tend to constituency business,” a British consulate official wrote state staffers in late October when they were planning the trip.

Among the 14 people listed as attending, according to emails, were Duncan, Miller, Rahman, Sens. Emanuel Jones, D-Ellenwood, Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta, and Clint Dixon, R-Buford, two members of Duncan’s security detail and Andrew Allison, the head of the Senate Press Office who left state government a little more than a month later for another job. Rahman, Jones, Halpern and Dixon all returned to the Senate this year.

Taxpayer expense?

The cost of the trip — which occurred just before Duncan and Miller retired from politics — is a mystery because of the General Assembly’s secrecy laws.

A review of emails and schedules suggests transportation for the group alone almost certainly cost tens of thousands of dollars.

When the AJC twice filed Open Records Act requests for a financial accounting of the trip, it received a note from the General Assembly’s legal counsel denying the information. “The Georgia General Assembly and its members, staff, committees, and offices are not subject to Georgia’s open records laws,” wrote Rick Ruskell, legislative counsel.

The General Assembly has a taxpayer-funded budget this year of roughly $53 million. Last year lawmakers voted themselves — and state employees — a $5,000 raise and added about $1.5 million to their budget under the heading “legislative operations.”

For decades, when reporters or the public asked for records on payments to lawmakers or how they spent their annual office allowance, the state fiscal office agreed to release the information after noting the General Assembly was not subject to the Open Records Act. The fiscal office even began posting lists of how much each lawmaker received in “per diem,” the expense money they get for days in session and on committee assignments.

But the legislative exemption from the Open Records Act means lawmakers give an accounting only when they wish to do so.

It’s an issue that has been fought over before in the courts, with judges siding with lawmakers who wrote the statute that says they don’t have to adhere to the same transparency laws as city councils or county commissions or even other state government agencies. The most recent ruling came in 2020 when a group sought records on what led lawmakers to pursue a law to regulate the practice of music therapy.

Jones, who was among the state senators who went to Europe, said he doesn’t understand why the state won’t share financial details of the trip. He said it was the first international trade trip he’s taken on behalf of the state.

“I believe that cost should be disclosed for full transparency,” he said, saying the visit to Europe gave him insight into the work Georgia puts into recruiting companies. “We stayed busy the entire time we were there. I don’t have anything to hide about my trip. I was honored to be invited.”

Jones said the state paid for his flight, lodging and ground transportation in Germany and the United Kingdom. He said he covered the cost of most meals and anything done outside of the approved schedule.

Supporters of the Open Records Act exemption say lawmakers shouldn’t have to disclose correspondence with constituents. But it also avoids them having to disclose contacts with Capitol lobbyists. And it keeps them from having to fully disclose what they spend on things such as Duncan and Miller’s weeklong pre-retirement committee trip to Europe.

“What you are experiencing is what’s wrong with the way the Legislature has exempted itself from the Open Records Act,” said Richard T. Griffiths, president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “The Legislature has consistently taken steps to protect itself from disclosure and the public’s right to know what’s going on in government.”

Without giving an accounting for what the trip costs and the results, Griffiths said, it’s impossible for the public to judge whether there will be a return on the state’s investment or whether it was just a European junket.

“The public, Griffiths said, “deserves to have the information to make that judgment.”