One of the top Republicans in Georgia is accused of abusing his position in order to keep some people out of prison, including an accused child rapist.
Here's what we know
According to a joint investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, David Ralston, the Republican speaker of Georgia's House of Representatives, used his position to indefinitely delay court dates for a number of alleged criminals, including the following:
- David Shell is accused of beating his wife, and locking her in their house so that she could not contact the police. He is also accused of throwing one of his girlfriends to the ground, slapping, and choking her, and beating, head butting, and biting the finger of another girlfriend. He was indicted and charged by a grand jury four years ago with being a repeat offender. Ralston has put off Shell's hearing seven times.
- An unnamed man was charged with a DUI. Ralston is accused of delaying this man's case on at least 17 occasions, putting it off for more than decade.
- Derek Key was accused of "enticing a child for indecent purposes" in 2008. Since the, Ralston has postponed this case 14 times, including as recently as Sept. 4.
- Another unnamed man allegedly threatened his neighbors with a gun during a barbecue in 2016. Ralston postponed this case 10 times.
- An unnamed defendant was charged with felony cruelty to children. Ralston delayed this case for nine years, until the district attorney dropped the charge since the victim had by that point left the state.
- Jason Brothers, a traveling evangelist, is accused of having raped and molested a 14-year-old girl more than five years ago. The girl reported the incident to police five years ago, but the case has been repeatedly postponed by Ralston eight times. "I had no idea at that point that, all these years later, that we would have so many trial dates that had been canceled," the girl's mother told WSB. "Every time we get our hopes up to get some release from the past and to be able to move on, you know, it's always a setback." She said that she thought the delays were intentional.
When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Shell about these accusations, he told them, "That's why I gave [Ralston] 20,000 bucks," adding, "He's worth every penny of it."
In addition to being speaker of the House since 2010, Ralston is also an attorney. Shell hired Ralston to defend him during the trial. So did the other accused criminals mentioned above. But instead of going to trial and fighting for his clients, Ralston continually tells the court that his responsibilities as speaker conflict with various court dates, leading to repeated delays. Georgia law requires judges and prosecutors to give allowances for attorneys who also serve in the General Assembly.
Since Ralston is speaker, he has duties that fall outside of the normal legislative session, meaning he could technically call for a delay of trial at virtually any time.
The Journal-Constitution and WSB found 93 days when Ralston said he was unavailable for court appearances for his clients. Out of these 76 — 82 percent — did not occur during the General Assembly's legislative session. The two news outlets conducting this investigation requested his schedule for the past three years to prove that he had a reason to postpone each of these court dates, but Ralston refused. And under Georgia state law, he has that right.
"Please be advised that I am hereby requesting a continuance of these three cases from the criminal calendar call," Ralston wrote in one letter obtained by the Journal-Constitution. "I hereby certify to the Court that my legislative duties and obligations will require that I be elsewhere on that date."
What did Ralston say?
In a statement to the Journal-Constitution, Ralston defended these cancellations:
Legislative leave is a long-established provision of Georgia law which recognizes the unique needs of a citizen-legislature and protects the independence of the legislative branch of state government. Like other members of the General Assembly, I utilize this provision outside of the legislative session, when necessary, to attend to my legislative duties as both a state representative and Speaker of the House. I'm honored to serve the members of the House of Representatives and to be one of 236 citizen-legislators serving our great state. I appreciate that I'm not the only one who must balance the responsibilities of my profession and my elected office.
In 2016, the State Bar of Georgia publicly reprimanded Ralston for delaying a client's case while he was loaning money to that client. In this instance, Ralston settled and "admitted that he had inadvertently violated two State Bar Rules," according to the Journal-Constitution.
Shell, who remains a free man, was surprisingly open with the newspaper. The kind of openness that might be a boon for prosecutors if his case ever went to trial. But he didn't seem too worried.
"The longer things wait, the less you remember," he told the paper. "People move away — they've gone. And if they can't find this girl — which I don't even know where she's at anymore anyway — and when it comes to court and they ain't got a witness or whatever, what are they going to do then?"
Ralston has faced backlash since this investigation came out, from both sides of the aisle. Conservative radio host and blogger Erick Erickson who urged his listeners to call the call members of the Georgia House Ethics Committee and accused Georgia Republicans of "enabling this and letting it happen."