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  •   ethics watch  

    Simons lobbies lawmakers, raises $$$ for them, too

     

    By JIM WALLS

    JULY 19, 2010 — Lobbyists, more than anything else, sell access to politicians.

    Political fund-raisers sell candidates on their ability to generate bundles of campaign cash, frequently from donors who want, well, access to politicians.

    Put the two jobs together, and you get Dave Simons.

    Simons

    Simons has earned $1.8 million since 2006 raising money and consulting for many of Georgia’s top Republican legislators — and a few Democrats as well.

    “I help them get elected and, more important, stay elected,” he said.

    In his spare time, Simons lobbies for a small pool of clients ranging from the Savannah Chamber of Commerce to title-pawn lender TitleMax and the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Clients reported paying him more than $40,000 this year for that work.

    “I think of myself not so much as a lobbyist, but more so as someone who’s putting two like-minded parties together,” Simons said. “I happen to have good connections.”

    Indeed. Simon’s past and current political clients include House Speaker David Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, House Ways and Means Chairman Larry O’Neal, former Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, the House and Senate appropriations chairmen and dozens more.

    Simons’ dual roles reflect yet another facet of the entwined and shifting relationships between public and private players at the state Capitol. Businesses, labor unions and civic groups all want a role in the politicking and, once the election’s over, in the policymaking. Lawmakers retire — or get retired by the voters — and sign up to lobby for the same special interests that once lobbied them.

    “There’s somebody representing somebody every time you walk out the door,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill said.

    Nothing in state law says there’s anything wrong about Simons’ dual roles. Nor should there be, Ralston says.

    “As long as there is full and complete disclosure, the [House] speaker sees no conflict with an individual working in both capacities — professions that are fundamental to the First Amendment and the exercise of free speech,” Ralston’s spokesman, Marshall Guest, said in a prepared statement. “Working in one role shouldn’t preclude someone from earning a living in the other.”

    Ralston paid Simons and another lobbyist, Laura Goss, $18,184 to put on his fund-raiser on the eve of this year’s legislative session. The speaker didn’t report the expense until July 8, well after the Legislature adjourned and qualifying closed for this year’s legislative elections. Simons said that’s because he couldn’t submit a bill for his share of the take until he could see Ralston’s April disclosure of donations.

    Simons shrugs off any suggestion that he can trade on relationships with lawmakers to swing votes or alter legislation. “You’re not going to buy a legislator for a nice meal or because we’re buddies,” he said.

    Still, it can’t hurt.

    Last year, Senate budget-writers added a last-minute, $4 million bond issue benefiting one of Simons’ clients, the Georgia International and Maritime Trade Center Authority, for improvements on Savannah’s River Walk. The House had not funded the project, but its conferees agreed and kept it in the budget signed a few weeks later by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

    “We just talked to the right people, and they recognized that a convention center plays a positive role in economic development for tourism in Savannah,” Simons said. “To be quite honest … we didn’t have to work that hard to get it.”

    Regardless, if Simons had needed to work a little harder, he was in good position. Five of the six budget conferees were current or former clients of his political consulting firm.

    Hill, who served with Simons in the Air National Guard, cautioned that those associations do not necessarily guarantee a warm reception. The Senate appropriations chairman still remembers Simons’ working for a Republican opponent in 2002.

    “Nothing personal,” said Hill, then a Democrat. “He was just trying to beat me.”

    Even so, Hill has paid Simons as a consultant in every campaign since then.

    “The fact that a fellow Guardsman took money to run somebody against me, I have never forgotten,” Hill said. “The fact that I used him as a consultant shows politics makes strange bedfellows.”

    (First published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

     

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