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Should lobbyists disclose $$$ spent on public officials’ families?
By JIM WALLS
House Speaker David Ralston and other Georgia lawmakers will learn today whether lobbyists’ spending on meals, entertainment and other gifts for officials’ spouses and families must be disclosed publicly. The State Campaign Finance Commission has scheduled an 11 a.m. conference call to consider an advisory opinion on just that point.
Doug Chalmers, an attorney close to Ralston, requested the opinion Feb. 11, just a few days after Common Cause Georgia filed a complaint over a $17,280 trip to Europe for the speaker, his chief of staff and their families. A lobbyist promoting high-speed trains paid for the jaunt.
Chalmers’ request did not identify his client. He identified himself last summer as counsel to Ralston, and campaign records show the speaker’s campaign account paid Chalmers’ current and former law firms $10,550 in 2010, including $5,000 on Dec. 6, nine days after the trip ended.
Lobbyist Chris Brady took Ralston and his chief of staff, Spiro Amburn, to Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Berlin on Nov. 21-27. Tagging along were Ralston’s wife and two children and Amburn’s wife.
Ralston, who has taken a lot of heat for the trip, defended his actions in a January interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“I wanted to be with my family during Thanksgiving week and that was the only week I could go due to my schedule. … I wanted to be with my wife and kids. I don’t apologize for that.”
Chalmers, in his request for the advisory opinion, argued that Georgia law does not require disclosure of gifts that benefit a public official’s family members or employees. The law, he contended, only covers expenses that benefit a “public officer” (basically elected officials and heads of government agencies) — not their families, and not other public employees.
Under that construction, travel expenses for Ralston’s chief of staff or family would not have to be disclosed. Chalmers’s request, though, said it was based on “a hypothetical set of facts and circumstances.”
The commission’s draft opinion, released Friday, would hold that public officers benefit when someone takes their spouse and kids to dinner (or, by extension, to Europe):
“The fact that the spouse of a public officer receives a meal paid for by the lobbyist is a ‘benefit’ to the public officer. If not for the lobbyist paying for the meal of the spouse or child, the family of a public officer would be required to do so out of their own income. The public officer receives the same benefit when the lobbyist pays for family members to travel with the public officer on a trip.”
The draft opinion agrees, however, that the law does not appear to require that lobbyists’ disclose gifts to government employees who do not fall under the definition of a “public officer.”
The commission’s final decision on the matter could affect what the public knows about hundreds of lobbyist gifts every year.
Georgia lawmakers frequently bring their spouses along when a lobbyist treats them to dinner. Lobbyist generally report those meals. (Although, of course, how would we know if they don’t?) And, as I reported last July, lobbyists schedule a variety of luncheons, tours and day trips for spouses each when the General Assembly is in session. The cost of those events is variously reported as a lobbying expense, as a campaign expense by the lobbyist’s clients, or not at all.