The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Richardson’s spectacular fall from power, culminating Thursday in his resignation from the speaker’s post and his House seat, highlights anew the culture of coziness between lobbyists and lawmakers in the Georgia Capitol. That culture is fueled by money, access to power and, some say, influence peddling that favors the lobbyists with the most generous expense accounts.
It has benefited not just Richardson, but other top lawmakers — including his replacement as speaker, Rep. Mark Burkhalter, and the House majority leader, Rep. Jerry Keen.
Lobbyists have spent almost $1.3 million entertaining legislators and other officials so far this year, according to reports filed with the State Ethics Commission. But lawmakers routinely deny that such largesse buys their votes.
In Richardson’s case, it was a romantic relationship with a lobbyist — revealed by his former wife in a television interview that aired Monday — that proved to be his undoing. Susan Richardson told Atlanta television station WAGA that her former husband engaged in a “full-out affair” with a lobbyist while sponsoring legislation that favored the woman’s employer, Atlanta Gas Light Co.
Lobbyists have paid Richardson’s way to Washington, New Orleans and the Georgia coast. They’ve taken him hunting on a South Georgia plantation. They’ve given him tickets to the Daytona 500, the Atlanta Falcons, the Radio City Rockettes and the Rolling Stones. In February 2008, four days after he and his wife filed for divorce, Richardson accepted two tickets valued at $562 for a Van Halen concert.
Disclosure reports list 795 separate gifts to Richardson during the past five years. The biggest givers were the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association; the Georgia Beer Wholesalers; the lobbying firm Georgia Public Strategies, which represents Philip Morris USA; the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals; and a title pawn lender, among others.
Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), the speaker pro tem, has received even more —$52,076.
Georgia Power, for instance, has spent $7,120 entertaining Burkhalter since 2005, records show. The community hospitals group spent $3,076. AGL, which pushed the controversial pipeline bill that connected Richardson and the lobbyist with whom he allegedly had an affair, spent $1,833 on Burkhalter, the measure’s lead sponsor.
Keen (R-St. Simons Island), the third-ranking House leader, received $49,103 since 2005, much of it from the same sources.