Georgia lobbyists, lawmakers dine out on weak ethics law


Asking lawmakers at the State Capitol to give up the freebies they receive from lobbyists is like asking an alcoholic to stop drinking. They first have to admit they have a problem.

In 2013, the General Assembly passed a significant lobbying reform bill, answering the loud complaints of voters across the political spectrum. With four years of perspective, I think we can admit that parts of it don’t work.

The centerpiece of the reform was the first-ever cap on what a lobbyist could give a public official, limiting such goodies to a value of $75 per gift. But there were other changes as well, particularly to group events.

Those changes are important because, while lobbyists don’t consider group dinners to be as effective as dining one-on-one with a lawmaker, they are an efficient way to show an entire gaggle of politicians you love them . That’s why you often seen catering trucks parked on the Capitol grounds during the legislative session.

Every day, lobbyists spend big bucks filling conference rooms with catered spreads. Larger events unfold at the renovated train depot across the street. And in the evening, lobbyists host entire committees in restaurants around the city.

In between, cookies, cakes, sandwiches and sodas are delivered to delegations, suites of offices or other knots of hungry politicians.

It adds up. In all, lobbyists spent about $4 on group events for every $1 spent on an individual gift. This year’s session lasted three months, adjourning March 31. During that brief time, lobbyists reported more than 1,000 group expenditures totaling $408,000.

Groups are defined, gifts limited

The 2013 reforms tried to cut into all that spending by defining what constitutes a legitimate group and then setting limits on the number of these events.

The law says lobbyists can hold an events for the entire General Assembly. There are a bunch of those, starting with the annual Wild Hog Supper, but including a lot of smaller drop-in events.

Also allowed are events targeting the entire House or Senate, the Republican and Democratic caucuses of either chamber, and the standing committees of either chamber.

Lobbyists are limited by law to hosting one dinner per committee. Committees, on the other hand, can eat as much food as they can get lobbyists to purchase for them, but they can’t hit up the same lobbyist twice.

The only other “groups” allowed to be on the receiving end of lobbyists’ generosity are smaller caucuses specifically approved by the House and Senate ethics committees. There aren’t many.

The Senate Ethics Committee failed to recognize any caucuses. The House Ethics Committee approved four: the Women’s Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus, the Rural Caucus and the Sportsman’s Caucus.

But the House Ethics Committee didn’t approve those caucuses until Feb. 22, more than six weeks after the start of the session. Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, who took over as committee chair this session, said he was unaware that the committee had that responsibility.

“When I was made aware, we began the process of identifying and getting required information to approve the caucuses,” he said. “When I had the appropriate information, we met and discussed the applications and approved four caucus committees.”

Unfamiliar or unconcerned?

Nix need not have hurried. No one was waiting on him. Prior to the ethics committee meeting, lobbyists hosted at least 54 events for groups that needed to have the ethics committee’s blessing. Many of those groups never applied for approval anyway.

For instance, a lobbyist for the multinational law firm Dentons paid for catered meals for the DeKalb County House delegation twice and the DeKalb Senate delegation three times, spending $1,283 along the way. These events raise a couple of questions.

First, it’s the same lobbyist hosting multiple events for a single group of lawmakers. Isn’t this exactly the type of favor that is supposedly limited by the 2013 reforms?

“They are evidently unfamiliar with the rules,” said Stefan Ritter, executive director of the state ethics commission, which is charged with enforcing them.

Second, the DeKalb delegations are not approved groups for such events, so should this event have happened in the first place?

“That’s also problematic,” Ritter said.

Ben Keane, a member of Dentons’ political law group, pointed to a part of state ethics law allows lobbyists to list expenditures for “an identifiable group of public officers” when listing them separately “would be impractical.” The individual spending on these meals was way below $75 a head, so Keane said there was no violation of the gift cap.

“It is merely an example of choosing to report group meals using group identifiers rather than itemized attendee listings,” he said. “State law allows lobbyists to do that.”

Ritter, after examining the Dentons records, said the amount of money involved may mean Keane is right.

Such group disclosure is common. Fifty-one times during the session, lobbyists engaged in group disclosure simply by listing office numbers (“Suite 226,” for example) rather than naming the lawmakers inside.

Keane is smart. He co-authors the “Pay to Play Law Blog” where I often go to get educated on lobbying and campaign finance rules. It’s not his job to make the law make sense, but one wonders why the Legislature would restrict group events in one part of the law only to allow them to be disclosed as group events in another.

In fact, Keane said “there’s no limit on group meal events” under the law as long as the $75-per-official cap is observed. Ritter added that the disclosure law Keane referred to “could swallow the rule” that suggests there are limits.

But the group expenditure law also is a convenient way to exceed the $75 cap in a below-the-radar fashion. On March 1, a herd of lobbyists combined forces to host the Senate Regulated Industries Committee at Wisteria, an Inman Park restaurant with a private event space.

The dinner was sponsored by the Georgia Cable Association, Georgia Power, Georgia EMC, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the liquor and beer industries, the auto dealers, the optometrists, the mining interests, telecommunications — you get the point. Regulated industries sponsored a meal for the committee doing the regulating.

The combined cost was $5,315 for the 14-member committee, or about $380 per public official. You can slice that down by adding spouses, but it’s hard to get it to the $75 cap. But under the law, the cap doesn’t apply to groups, so it’s not a violation.

Dozens of questionable entries

The weaknesses and contradiction in the law explain why the state ethics commission doesn’t do this kind of enforcement.

In a few days, I discovered dozens of questionable entries in this year’s disclosures. If the ethics commission were to start chasing them all, it would consume all of the small agency’s time and budget.

“The reality is if we got a complaint we’d look at it and take it seriously,” Ritter said.

But, he said,“We couldn’t possibly follow up on all these.”

That’s a shame for those of us who want clean, responsive government.

Some states bar lobbyists from plying politicians with food, drinks, travel and other gifts. Georgia does not. Instead, the General Assembly has defended the practice as both traditional and appropriate, so long as there is “transparency” to the public.

That transparency is supposed to allow you to track your elected officials and see with whom they associate. Right now, you can’t.

In the end, Georgia either needs a better law or a better General Assembly.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.



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