Originally created 01/15/98

Senate censures first senator in 22 years



ATLANTA -- Wednesday the son of a famed civil rights leader became the second Georgia state senator in modern times to be censured by his peers.

Atlanta Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III received the strongest reprimand possible, short of expulsion, for hiding marijuana in his underwear on his way through Hartsfield International Airport while returning from Jamaica in December.

He abstained from voting on the measure sponsored by Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Eddie Madden, D-Elberton.

"I did not vote. I did not think it was appropriate to vote," Mr. Abernathy said. "I thank my supporters, family and friends for holding me up."

The last senator to be censured was Roscoe Dean of Jesup in 1976.

The Senate, usually a bustling, noisy chamber with numerous conversations going on at once, was still and silent as the senators voted 51-2 for the censure.

The holdouts were a Republican and Democrat. But their reasons were widely different.

One of the two, state Sen. Donzella James, D-College Park, argued the Senate has failed to act harshly in the past against legislators who have pleaded guilty to drunk driving.

"I just went through the anniversary of my son's death from a drunk driver. There are drunk drivers among us," Ms. James said.

Gwinnett County Sen. Don Balfour, R-Lilburn, voted against the measure in protest, saying it was not harsh enough. Instead, he called for expulsion.

Noting Mr. Abernathy's bill that would expel children caught with drugs at school, Mr. Balfour said, "the standards should not be lower than the standards of elementary school children."

Mr. Abernathy could still face expulsion as House Republicans push a resolution to impeach him. If it passes, the Senate would then hold a hearing. A two-thirds majority is required to impeach a legislator.

Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat who heads the Georgia Association for Black Elected Officials, on Tuesday railed against impeachment supporters, calling it "hypocrisy" to try to dump Mr. Abernathy. He cited previous transgressions of legislators, including several drunken-driving convictions, the carrying of knives and guns onto the House floor, charges of stalking and numerous other complaints of improper conduct.