Disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff on Wednesday described Georgia as a “lobbyist Disneyland” with a national reputation for loose regulation.
Abramoff, speaking at an Atlanta Press Club luncheon, praised Georgia lawmakers for taking on lobbyist gift reform but said the bill that passed the House this week has too many loopholes.
“If I were a lobbyist here I would run through that bill in three seconds,” he said. At a later stop, Abramoff referred to his speaking tour and said, “Wherever I went people would reference Georgia as the worst place for ethics.”
Abramoff was one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists until he was sentenced in 2006 to four years in prison as part of a wide-ranging public corruption investigation. He was released from prison in 2010 and has since become an outspoken advocate of ethics reform and has traveled the country speaking on the topic and selling his book, “Capitol Punishment.”
The spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who introduced the lobbying reform bill that passed the House, dismissed Abramoff’s criticism as uninformed.
“I would first ask if he had read the bill,” said the spokesman, Marshall Guest. “And then I would politely remind him that he couldn’t even register as a lobbyist here in Georgia because he is a convicted felon. The speaker has been working with Georgians who have good ideas on this issue as opposed to Washington insiders who are trying to profit from their wrongdoing by selling their book.”
House Bill 142, forbids lobbyists from paying for meals, sports tickets and other gifts for public officials. Currently, lobbyists have no restrictions on what gifts for officials, as long as they are disclosed.
The bill passed the House Monday 164-4 with significant exceptions, including provisions that would allow lobbyists to pay for meals for entire committees and other groups of legislators. The bill also allows lobbyists to pay for travel, with the exception of airfare, for lawmakers if the trip falls within the official’s public duties.
Speaking before the press club on Tuesday, Ralston called the bill “historic reform” and defended the exceptions as common-sense accommodations that would allow some traditional events to continue while cracking down on the types of gifts voters find the most distasteful.
Ralston’s bill has moved to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a rule capping lobbyist spending at $100 per gift, but that rule contains many of the same exceptions as the House bill.
Common Cause Executive Director William Perry said he is advocating caps for those exceptions as a compliment to Ralston’s ban.
“When I get outside the Capitol and talk to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, people say, ‘Why let them have anything?’ It’s tough to defend,” he said. “Let’s take a big step from unlimited (gifts) and continue to work the system to the point where the bribery isn’t there.”