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Lobbyists treat lawmakers’ spouses, don’t always report it
By JIM WALLS
July 5, 2010 –– Each year, lobbyists organize and pay for lunches at hot spots like The 191 Club, day trips and other events – some costing thousands of dollars — to entertain the spouses of Georgia legislators.
No one knows the total price tag. Or, at least, the ones who know aren’t always saying.
State law requires that lobbyists file public disclosures of spending that’s meant “to encourage or influence” a public official, or that might be construed that way. The law says that could include food and drink consumed by a member of an official’s family.
So, does a luncheon for spouses constitute an attempt to influence lawmakers? Or, as was the case this year, a dozen or more such luncheons?
Common Cause Georgia, the good-government advocacy group, regards such arrangements as further evidence of the “climate of coziness” under the Gold Dome.
“A day on the town for the spouse is certainly going to be seen by the legislator as a nice gesture that leads us into the equation of how he/she will decide how to vote on the bill of interest to the lobbyist who paid for the spouse outing,” Common Cause director Bill Bozarth said.
Lobbyists — the ones who would talk about it — say the lunches are nothing more than a nice thing to do.
“They’re up here making sacrifices for their families,” said Kevin Perry, who represents the Georgia Beverage Association. “It’s nice to be able to honor them for their commitment and the sacrifices they make for four months.”
Other lobbyists were not so forthcoming. I left messages for a half-dozen who never returned my call, and another didn’t call back after promising to do so.
A four-page “2010 Legis-Spouse Events Calendar” provides a peek at the types of events for spouses:
- A Jan. 26 tour of the historic Swan House and Gardens, followed by lunch at the Katydid room.
- Lunch at Maggiano’s on March 11 with a short presentation on home security.
- A March 23 day trip to Cartersville for lunch, a couple museum stops and a tour of a historic Greek Revival home.
The handy schedule explains who’s hosting each event, the deadline for RSVPs and even which lobbyists should get a thank-you note for their generosity.
The Georgia Industrial Loan Association hosted the first event of the 2010 session, a Jan. 13 luncheon at the 191 Club. They’re the folks who make sure state law remains friendly to businesses making small loans at higher interest rates. GILA disclosed the $3,236 tab to the State Ethics Commission in April as a campaign expense.
Sponsors of the 15 other scheduled events reported their costs as a lobbying expense or, more often, not at all. I found four events listed on lobbyists’ expense reports, and three for which a portion of the cost was disclosed. One event was canceled.
On March 18, Georgia Power Co. dropped $3,430 to host the spouses at the Princess Di exhibit at the Atlanta Civic Center, followed by lunch at the French American Brasserie. The calendar promised “a wonderful and simplistic dining experience.”
The public had no way of knowing that until June 24. That’s when lobbyist Jeffrey Franklin amended his March expense report after I called Georgia Power to ask about it.
“We believe the law is unclear about this,” spokeswoman Lynn Wallace said. “When we hosted this event, we didn’t believe that the disclosure was required.”
Georgia Power reported the expense “in the interest of putting everything out there,” Wallace said. She emphasized that ratepayers did not pick up the tab.
Lawmakers this year chose transparency over regulation when they rejected proposals to limit the value of lobbyists’ gifts. Time and again, House Speaker David Ralston said he trusted voters — given complete information on special interests’ gifts and campaign contributions — to do the right thing if they believe there are excesses.
Perhaps. But if that’s the plan, voters need to know about all the lobbyist largesse in Atlanta.