Gift ban isn't only ethics issue

Earlier this month, a case before the state ethics commission brought to light what some advocates consider a legal loophole large enough to drive a train through.
The five-member commission, formally named the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, closed the case against a company representative who spent $17,000 ferrying the speaker of the House of Representatives, his wife and aide to Europe. The trip was to look at the super-fast, super-expensive, mag-lev trains there that the gentleman’s company happens to sell.
The commission let him off with a $300 fine as his lawyer argued he wasn’t really guilty but simply wanted to move on. He undoubtedly paid his lawyer more than the fine just to make that comment.
His professed innocence, the commissioners were told, stems from the fact the law only requires a person to register as a lobbyist if they’re paid to influence an officeholder about pending legislation. In this case, no one had introduced any bills dealing with mag-lev trains before the trip.
Of course, if the trip had been a smashing success, the speaker might have been impressed enough to draft a bill on his flight home and formally introduce it himself at the next opportunity.
That’s the Catch-22 aspect of the loophole. Until the lobbyist influences someone, there usually isn’t any legislation.
The source of most bills is either a state agency or a lobbyist. Very few originate with the imagination of legislators or the suggestion of private citizens.
Several years back, the Senate Republicans created a website with much ballyhoo that invited constituents to recommend legislation. Only one bill was credited to the initiative, and it came from a former prison warden who had been pushing the same idea before his retirement.

The website hasn’t been mentioned since.

Lobbyists usually leave blank on state disclosure forms the section about which bill they were trying to influence when they entertained a given lawmaker. It may be because they’re pushing several bills, or more likely no particular bill other than building a rapport that will be handy when the consideration of some future bill gets heated.

If they aren’t really lobbying before a bill gets introduced, then they can shower endless gifts, meals and trips on politicians without anything being disclosed to the public, according to Mr. Mag Lev’s logic.

Most veteran lobbyists say they report everything out of an abundance of caution. They don’t want to risk ruining their reputation with clients or legislators with a trail of ethics fines.

But how does anyone know such pre-legislation persuasion isn’t common if it isn’t reported?

Consider the case in Alabama where developers wined, dined -- and in some cases bribed -- legislators to advance their casinos. The issue came to a head when police raided the casinos for operating outside of the law.

Could those lobbyists -- at least one of whom had previously worked with Georgia legislators -- have argued that since there was no legislation, they were in the clear? (Of course, a bribe is never legal, but there were also plenty of gifts, meals and trips.)

Part of the challenge, citizen-advocates say, is that Georgia law only requires half of the people involved in the transaction to disclose it. Lawmakers made lobbyists file all the reports but not themselves, the recipients of the largess. In fact, they recently showed how determined they were about ethics by passing a law making lobbyists file their reports twice as often.

During the current election cycle, more than 100 candidates have signed a pledge to vote to prohibit lobbyists from bestowing more than $100 on them at a time. Of course, they could simply refuse the gifts, buy their own football tickets and only eat with voters or colleagues, but their intention is to put the onus on the lobbyists.

Absent from the campaign rhetoric is any discussion about closing the “pending legislation” loophole.

William Perry, the head of the Georgia chapter of Common Cause, called the $300 fine “a slap on the wrist ... a joke.”

Closing the loophole isn’t so simple. The last executive director of the ethics commission tried by interpreting the law at the time as requiring anyone collecting a paycheck while talking with a politician to register as a lobbyist. Her goal was to snag executives who entertain or arm twist miles away from the Capitol.

She triggered an outcry from critics that such an interpretation would require even newspaper editorial writers or a cashier who bends the ear of a legislator to register for advocating a position while being paid. Lawmakers were so outraged they blasted her from the House well and cut the agency’s budget -- which led to her resignation rather than accept a 30-percent pay cut.

Politics is the art of the possible, so Perry, the League of Women Voters and the tea party groups all championing the $100 gift limit will keep their goals realistic and attack one loophole at a time.



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