published Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

Speaker Ralston took lobbyist-funded trip to Europe

ATLANTA — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, his chief of staff and their family members accepted a $17,000 trip to Europe over Thanksgiving week funded by lobbyists interested in building a high-speed train line between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., according to state records.

While Ralston said it was a legitimate working trip, ethics watchdog groups said it shows Georgia should cap how much money lobbyists can spend on lawmakers.

Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said the trip helped him understand how European nations have merged rail and roads with commercial development. He said he took his family with him because the Nov. 21-27 trip coincided with Thanksgiving.

“I wanted to be with my family during Thanksgiving week and that was the only week I could go due to my schedule,” Ralston said.

The trip was funded by the Washington-based Commonwealth Research Associates. The firm has worked on six proposed U.S. rail projects, including plans for a magnetic levitation train to run between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Georgia and Tennessee have received a $14 million federal grant to study the issue, but officials have not secured the local money necessary to study the environmental consequences.

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