From Canada to Turkey, Germany to Scotland and even Azerbaijan, Georgia elected officials have traveled the globe this summer. But, in nearly every case, voters and taxpayers have no way of knowing who paid, who went along and what the purpose of the trip was.
Because the trips weren’t paid for by lobbyists or with campaign funds, none of them had to be reported or made public. All the trips were completely legal and within ethics rules, and in most cases, the state did not pay for the trips. Even new ethics rules that take effect Jan. 1 would not require them to be disclosed. But some argue that sponsorships raise the question of preferential treatment for those footing the bill.
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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered the international trips through a series of tips, interviews and Internet research. But, because they do not have to be disclosed, there could be others. Here’s what was found:
Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, traveled to Turkey and attended the U.S.–Azerbaijan Convention in Baku, Azerbaijan May 28 and 29. The Istanbul Center in Atlanta also sponsored trips to Turkey in June with Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain, and Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody,
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, were in Scotland July 9-12 for a National Conference of State Legislatures symposium.
Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols was a guest of the German government in June to study energy policy.
Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, also visited Turkey with nine other female American legislators to meet with women leaders from the Middle East and North Africa. The trip was funded by a grant from the nonprofit Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp was in Nova Scotia July 14-16 for the Southeastern United States-Canada Provinces Alliance 2013 conference. He led a state delegation sponsored by the Department of Economic Development.
Only Kemp’s trip was covered by state dollars as the trade mission was official business, and Canada remains the leading importer of goods made in Georgia. Economic development records show our northern neighbor accounts for 18 percent of the state’s exports.
Kemp’s trip was also different from the others in that the state announced that Kemp would attend. The Department of Economic Development, after an inquiry from the AJC, released a list of who went on the trip, which included state employees, a number of corporate executives and Canadian diplomats. The department also will release details of the cost of the trip, once those records are finalized.
Stephens, the chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, visited Turkey and the southwest Asian country of Azerbaijan as a guest of the Istanbul Center in Atlanta. Stephens twice said he would return a reporter’s call but did not.
According to the U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention’s website, Stephens was one of dozens of American elected officials, including several members of Congress, to attend. Sponsors of the convention included major oil companies BP and Chevron, as well as firms that specialize in off-shore drilling.
Details of Stephens’ trip, like most of the others, are not available to the public. That’s not good, said Kerwin Swint, interim chair of the Department of Political Science at Kennesaw State University.
“I’d prefer if I knew what they were doing to verify they were on official business,” said Swint, who serves on the board of Common Cause Georgia. “That’d be my preference. Obviously, that’s not the law.”
Common Cause Georgia led recent efforts in the General Assembly to strengthen state ethics laws after the AJC reported that Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had taken a $17,000 lobbyist funded trip to Europe in 2010.
New rules that restrict lobbyist spending on elected officials take effect Jan. 1. But even those reforms would not prohibit these kinds of trips, as none of the groups that sponsored the trips appears to have lobbyists in Georgia. Georgia’s rules for disclosing gifts to state officials is similar to that of many other states. Some, however, such as Pennsylvania, require elected leaders to disclose any sponsored travel valued at more than $650.
Even if the trips are legal and allowed under ethics rules, Swint wondered if they are smart. The outrage from voters over Ralston’s trip led to calls from both parties for changes. That’s still fresh in voters’ minds, he said.
“In that environment, you’d think people would be a little more conscious of how it looks,” Swint said. “It may be completely legitimate. We can’t always tell. If it’s good government stuff or do they take them to Scotland to play golf?”
That’s the rub, said Chuck Clay, a former lawmaker and former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.
“There is value to expanding contacts, introducing Georgia abroad and quite candidly educating some of our own elected officials who maybe never have had the opportunity to see beyond our borders,” Clay said.
But, if it’s a “pure golf junket to Muirfield to watch the British Open,” that’s very different, Clay said.
“It’s always smart to let the public know where you’re going and why you’re traveling. And, if you’re comfortable enough to defend it, I think people will understand,” he said.
The Scotland trip was absolutely work-related, both Cagle and Balfour said.
Balfour, a former president of NCSL, said the group invited him to Scotland for three days of meetings with Scottish officials. NCSL provided three nights lodging and a $1,000 travel stipend.
“The state didn’t pay for a dime of it,” Balfour said. “What I do on my own time, on my own money, personally I don’t see where it should be an issue.”
Plus, he said, NCSL next month will hold its annual convention in Atlanta, an event that will bring 5,000 people to the city with an estimated economic impact of more than $5 million.
The agenda for the Scottish trip included ceremonies and tours at Parliament, a lecture on the role of Scotland in U.S. history, a seminar on the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom, and sessions on budget trends, energy policy and demographics and public policy.
Cagle spokesman Scott Paradise said NCSL is a “nationally recognized non-profit that serves as an important educational resource.” Cagle, he said, “was happy for the opportunity to thank them for their commitment to Georgia. It was an honor for him to represent Georgia and participate in an exchange of ideas and best practices.”
Cagle’s security detail did not travel to Scotland, Paradise said.
A few weeks before the two Senate leaders were in Scotland, Echols, the PSC firebrand, was in Germany. He told the AJC earlier this month he went to learn about Germany’s renewable energy policies, but neither he nor German officials would say how much the trip cost.
The Atlanta-based Istanbul Center says the excursions they sponsor build cultural and economic ties. Mustafa Sahin, director of academic affairs for the center, said his organization has organized these visits since 2005.
Legislators are not necessarily targeted for the trips, he said. “We go to Turkey with mixed groups, so it’s not only for lawmakers or legislators, it’s just people who know us, they refer us to their friends,” Sahin said.
Taylor, the Dunwoody Republican who has a degree in international business and serves on the House economic development committee, said Turkey is an emerging market for Georgia businesses. Taylor said they met with Turkish port officials and members Parliament.
Orrock, who also visited Turkey, said her trip was organized by the Women’s Action Network to build ties with female leaders in developing countries.
“I have a long, long history of working to get more women into politics,” Orrock said. “There are remarkable similarities of women [in these countries] finding their voices and making their way into politics and gaining more power.”
There is more international travel to come this summer. Gov. Nathan Deal will fly to China in late August to open an economic development office in the city of Qingdao and will go from there to Japan to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Georgia’s first office in Tokyo.
The Department of Economic Development is selling sponsorships for the trip. For $10,000, a company can send five people to both events and attend a private, “sponsor-only” reception with Deal.
This trip, like the one Kemp took to Canada, is state-sponsored, which means the public could eventually find out the details.
Swint, the KSU political scientist, said when the travel bill is picked up by businesses or special interest groups, the public might question whether lawmakers are influenced by such gifts.
“It may make good business sense” for companies to pay for public officials’ travels, Swint said. “On the other hand, I can see how it gives some corporations a leg up.”
How we got this story
A Gold Dome insider alerted a reporter to overseas trips a pair of state lawmakers took. Based on that tip, and a series of interviews and Internet research, the paper learned that several other state leaders made international excursions this summer. Because these types of trips don’t have to be disclosed to the public, there may be others the paper has yet to identify.