Loophole conceals lobbyists’ agendas when wining & dining
By JIM WALLS
Feb. 15, 2010 — Georgia’s ethics enforcers ask lobbyists to reveal who’s really paying whenever they wine and dine legislators.
But the State Ethics Commission now acknowledges that Georgia law does not seem to require that lobbyists give up that information. That realization prompted the agency last week to drop charges against a high-profile lobbyist suspected of violating the Ethics in Government Act.
The upshot? Unless the Legislature fixes the loophole, Georgia’s 1,600 lobbyists won’t have to reveal who’s really paying for a lawmaker’s fancy meal or skybox seats.
Many lobbyists say such expenses are more about schmoozing than promoting a particular bill or client. The real work, they say, occurs in the Capitol corridors, not over a filet mignon at Bone’s or beers at a Falcons game.
“They don’t discuss specific legislation. They’re building relationships, getting to know each other, that sort of thing, ” said attorney Doug Chalmers, a specialist in government ethics, campaign finance and election law.
Raymon White, one of Chalmers’ clients, is among Georgia’s more generous lobbyists. Last year, he dropped $10,857 on meals and entertainment, almost exclusively to the benefit of key House and Senate Republicans.
His clients included the NRA, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Georgia’s community hospitals and a dozen others, but White’s 2009 spending reports rarely specified which one was on his mind during a particular meal.
Similarly, White’s disclosures never identified a single bill or topic in connection with any of his payments for a lawmaker’s drinks, meal or cab fare. Did a specific bill not come up even once on those 172 occasions? White, through his attorney, declined to discuss it.
The Ethics Commission opened a case against White a month ago, after Fox 5’s Dale Russell reported that White had paid for a number of dinners with House Speaker Glenn Richardson without disclosing his client on expense reports filed with the state.
Chalmers, upon receiving the commission’s notice of a preliminary inquiry, said he could find no statutory requirement that lobbyists disclose that information.
Attorneys for the Ethics Commission eventually agreed and notified White on Wednesday that they were dismissing the case.
Georgia lawmakers could have addressed the disclosure issue in 2005, when they expanded the law to cover lobbyists seeking to win a state contract or influence an agency’s rules.
Lobbyists in those situations now must reveal who they’re working for when they buy a state worker a meal or tickets to a ballgame. But the law was not amended to require the same information from lobbyists who buy gifts for legislators.
A lot of money is at stake. Last year, lobbyists spent $1.5 million on such gifts. The biggest spenders included Georgia Power Co. (more than $47,000), AT&T ($45,000), IBM ($43,000), Coca-Cola ($29,000) and the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association ($22,000).
Legislators this year are considering two bills to cap lobbyists’ gifts, which currently have no limit, at either $25 or $100.
A $100 cap could still leave lobbyists plenty of latitude. Most spending is reported in amounts of more than $100, but often it’s for tickets, group meals and other items that could be broken apart and reported as smaller amounts.
Chalmers, testifying before the House and Senate ethics committees a few weeks ago, told lawmakers he believes disclosure and transparency of lobbying activities will serve the public better than more restrictions on gifts.
He agrees a limit on lobbyists’ gifts would help to restore public confidence in the General Assembly. But, in an interview, Chalmers speculated that lawmakers would have a hard time crafting language that would bar improper gifts while still allowing legitimate lobbying expenditures.
“Imposing strict or unworkable prohibitions, ” he said, “may well increase the temptation to find creative ways around the rules, or the temptation not to disclose activities at all, neither of which is in the public interest.”