RINGGOLD, Ga. — A conservative activist who investigated Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said local lawmakers who continue to support the powerful Republican "clearly are drinking the Kool-Aid."
Derek Somerville, who said he spent two months reviewing Ralston's use of legislative leave to delay court cases as a private attorney, presented his case to the Georgia Transparency Coalition on Thursday night. He said Ralston invoked his duties as a lawmaker to delay 279 cases 1,091 times from 2006-18. The Times Free Press has not verified his report.
Somerville, a former FBI special agent who now works as an energy consultant, said he took offense to the way Northwest Georgia lawmakers defended Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, this week. On Tuesday, the speaker met with the Dalton Daily-Citizen News. He brought with him state Reps. Dewayne Hill, Rick Jasperse, Jason Ridley and Steve Tarvin, who all spoke in support of Ralston. State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, also defended Ralston to the newspaper.
In particular, Somerville criticized Hill, R-Ringgold, who told the Daily-Citizen News, "There's nothing there. It's all made up. It's just a bunch of junk and a bunch of lies."
"When life presents you with a good fight, you jump in," Somerville said. "I think this is a good fight, and I think that we have the truth on our side. I think they're circling the wagons. They're making these absurd statements."
Ten Republican state representatives called for Ralston to resign as speaker in February, after an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV found Ralston invoked the legislative leave law to delay court cases 57 times in two years. Legislative leave allows representatives and senators who work as attorneys to delay court cases if their state duties get in the way.
Enacted in 1905, the law used to apply only during legislative sessions — usually, the first three months of the year. But in 2006, legislators expanded the law to apply throughout the year. (After the controversy this year, the Legislature amended the law to give judges and opposing attorneys the ability to push back on these requests. It's not yet clear how successful the change will be.)
After he read about the controversy, Somerville said Thursday night, he pulled court records himself. He read through hundreds of files for Ralston's cases in Cherokee, Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Pickens, Towns and Union counties.
He said he found an uptick in Ralston's use of legislative leave in 2010, when he became speaker. From 2006-09, Somerville said, Ralston invoked legislative leave in those eight counties an average of 25 times a year. From 2010-18, he allegedly used the law an average of 95 times.
Somerville presented copies of letters from Ralston, requesting legislative leave. In one, the speaker allegedly told judges he couldn't go to court for five weeks before the start of the session, as he needed to prepare for lawmaking duties. In another, he said he couldn't make it to court because a hearing would be within three weeks of the end of session. But the hearing was supposed to occur in early May, about a month after the end of session.
Somerville argued these delays cause pain. Families of victims wait years for justice. Residents in civil cases run out of money and can't afford their private attorneys, effectively ending their cases. While other issues can cause court delays, legislative leave only inflames the problem.
"We're just supposed to take it," he said. "When I heard these things, I started to think, 'We're sheep. We're just dumb. We're just not meant to question anything. We're just meant to tuck in.' I feel like I've got a right, and I feel like you have the right. Explain this to me. Don't brush it off like I'm ignorant."
On Tuesday, Ralston told the Daily Citizen-News he still plans to use the legislative leave to delay court cases when he needs to attend fundraisers, saying, "That's part of my job."
The controversy sparked infighting among conservatives. (Somerville himself praised President Donald Trump on Thursday.) The Georgia Transparency Coalition that hosted Thursday's meeting is an accountability group directed by former Walker County Tea Party coordinator Dean Kelley. Denise Burns and Eddie Caldwell, leaders in the Northwest Georgia Republican Assembly who lobbied to defeat sales tax referendums in Catoosa and Whitfield counties in March, also attended.
Ridley, R-Chatsworth, told the Times Free Press he backed Ralston this week because he believes the speaker was unfairly criticized. He said Ralston is not the only reason cases get delayed.
He also warned the scandal could cause problems during next year's election cycle.
"All you're doing is giving the Democrats something to use," Ridley said. "If you want to conquer something, divide them up. That's what they've done. Instead of bringing this in house, in the caucus, and try to solve this, they want to get their name in the paper. A few of them do. Not all of them."
But Burns said the opposite could be true. Failing to oust Ralston could hurt Republicans.
"I'm not a fan of, what is on any other measure, unethical behavior," she said. "[Ralston] wrote the law. He worded it like this. He stepped into a position where he could take advantage of it. If it were Democrats, we would be apoplectic The ads in the Atlanta area will write themselves. And it will cost metro Republicans in a purple district their seats. It won't hurt Jason Ridley. It won't hurt Steve Tarvin."
Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, spoke in support of Ralston at the editorial board meeting Tuesday, telling the Daily-Citizen News, "The people over there who know these cases the best, elected him. They know these cases."
Burns was surprised Tarvin backed Ralston on Tuesday. She said she called him in February to criticize the speaker's behavior, and she said he told her he was going to remain neutral on the issue. Kelley said Tarvin told him Tuesday — the same day he appeared at the editorial board — that he was "Switzerland" with respect to the controversy.
"He probably won't want me telling you that, but I don't care," Kelley said. "You shouldn't talk out both sides of your mouth."
Tarvin did not return a call or text message seeking comment Thursday night.
Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.
Power Poll finds a majority of Chattanooga community leaders support a tax increase in Hamilton County