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  •   ethics watch  

    What do wining-&-dining lobbyists really want?

     

    By JIM WALLS

    About 180 times last year, state disclosures show, a lobbyist gave House Speaker David Ralston something: A meal, a drink, a round of golf, a family trip to Europe.

    We know these lobbyists spent about $35,000 on the speaker in 2010. What we don’t know is much more significant: What did they want from him?

    Most lobbyists never answer that question, and Georgia doesn’t really make them. Under the state’s disclosure law, lobbyists must say what bill or regulation they were trying to influence when they pay for dinner or golf, but that can be interpreted so narrowly that they can report anything — or nothing — as the purpose of their expenditure.

    Four times, lobbyists filed a gift disclosure specifying the bill that they schmoozed Ralston about. On four or five other reports, they mentioned the topic of conversation but no particulars. The rest of the time, not even a topic was disclosed.

    We’re talking about this because lobbyist Chris Brady spent $17,000-plus last fall to take Ralston, his chief of staff and their families on a trip. Brady’s official disclosure said nothing about the reason for the trip or the destination; further investigation showed they went to Germany and the Netherlands to check out high-speed rail.

    What did Brady want in return? The common assumption is funding for a study of magnetic levitation technology. Brady has been promoting maglev since the 1990s as a U.S. Senate staffer, as representative of a maglev vendor and as president of his own consulting firm, Commonwealth Research Associates.

    Commonwealth, working under a $7.8 million federal grant awarded to Georgia, is listed as a subcontractor on an environmental study of a possible high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Building that line would cost an estimated $6 billion to $9 billion to serve about 10,000 passengers a day.

    As a lobbyist, Brady also represents the Chamber of Commerce in Dalton, a community that’s been asked to come up with money to match a second federal maglev grant, and the Georgia Central Railway, which runs a short freight line from Macon to Savannah. Long-range plans call for possibly extending the maglev line south to Macon and Savannah.

    Brady did not return several telephone and e-mail messages seeking clarification.

    Commonwealth, in documents submitted to MARTA in 2009, described many past lobbying successes. The company said it had won U.S. Senate support for money to help Atlanta pay for sewer repairs; congressional approval for $1 billion in maglev funding; and support of Georgia legislative and transportation officials for maglev.

    Brady and his associate Linda Hamrick “are the sole advocates in our field responsible for these [pro-maglev] efforts,” according to the lobbyists’ pitch for MARTA’s business. “This project would not be where it is but for our efforts.”

    The pair accomplished most of this, though, with little or no lobbyist disclosure. A search of state and federal lobbyist databases shows nothing connecting them to maglev interests until this month and, in Washington, nothing linking them to Atlanta City Hall.

    Perhaps their work didn’t require that Hamrick or Brady register as lobbyists but, regardless, there were no clear disclosures of their clients or their spending.

    Last year, the State Ethics Commission dropped a case against a prominent lobbyist who’d paid for a lot of dinners with the former House speaker without divulging the issues they discussed. Ethics lawyers determined the law did not require that information.

    Top Georgia lawmakers insist the best way to address gift-giving by lobbyists is to require swift disclosure rather limiting or banning gifts. For that to work, though, the law must require meaningful disclosure of lobbyists’ clients and purpose – a step legislators have been unwilling to take.

    Just tell us what they want: beer sales on Sunday, a law to keep microchips out of our brains, or a million bucks to study a maglev line to Chattanooga.

    Why is that so difficult? What is it they don’t want us to know?

     

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