Originally created 12/19/97

Lawmaker could be censored



ATLANTA -- State Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III, caught by U.S. Customs with pot in his underwear, will be censured if the Georgia Senate Ethics Committee has its way.

However, one of his colleagues vehemently opposed the committee, calling it a "lynch mob," since the committee failed to act on the arrest and conviction of another state senator for DUI last year.

"I see no reason why we should be like a lynch mob. He paid his fine," said state Sen. Donzella James, D-College Park. She added that she does not like Mr. Abernathy and does not speak to him even though they sit side by side in the Senate.

"I am not standing up for him. I am standing up for justice," she said.

Rank-and-file House Republicans have filed a resolution to impeach Mr. Abernathy, whose father was a top lieutenant of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

If successful, the resolution would remove Mr. Abernathy from his legislative seat.

On the other hand, the censure resolution proposed by the ethics committee would publicly condemn Mr. Abernathy but allow him to stay in office. After impeachment, censure is the most serious punishment in the Legislature.

The censure resolution will go before the Senate on Jan. 12.

"We need to show some action. We ought to, as a committee and prior to any complaint, recognize that this is the leadership position we ought to take," said Senate President Pro Tem Sonny Perdue, D-Bonaire.

"We have to make a statement that this kind of behavior is not acceptable or tolerable," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Clay, R-Marietta.

Mr. Abernathy, D-Atlanta, paid a $500 fine after being caught with marijuana in his pants on Dec. 1 at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta on the way back from Jamaica.

He apologized, calling the incident a mistake, but has not commented since.

"I have a problem with the first African-American who has done something, that has already gone through the letter of the law," said Ms. James, the lone black member of the ethics committee. "We had a drunk driver right among us this year and we didn't say a word about it," she said, referring to state Sen. Rene Kemp, D-Hinesville.

The committee, chaired by state Sen. Eddie Madden, D-Elberton, also voted to expand the powers of the committee. An amendment by state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, would allow anyone in the General Assembly to file an ethics complaint and allow the public to ask the chairman to file one.

Mr. Abernathy has a history of controversial actions, including an incident in which he eluded police and ran stop signs in a school zone, and another in which he forced his way into a ladies' bathroom at the Capitol over the objections of a female state employee.