Zurik: Lobbyists shell out big bucks for political influence

Zurik: Lobbyists shell out big bucks for political influence

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Lobbying is an important part of the legislative process. It can educate lawmakers. But it can also influence - and legal experts say that influence can be enhanced by wining and dining.

In May 2013, while Louisiana lawmakers hashed out bills inside the State Capitol, 23 of their spouses enjoyed lunch paid for by a lobbyist.

"It doesn't make sense," says UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak. "It's difficult to understand why lobbyists are paying money to wine and dine spouses. They're not the ones who are writing law, it's the elected officials."

According to the lobbyist's own report to the State Ethics Board, the lunch cost $43.40 for each spouse. And the spouses of some of the most powerful lawmakers attended, including the wife of House Speaker Chuck Kleckley.

The lobbyist who paid the bill, Larry Murray, works for gaming, healthcare and tobacco companies. Murray told us his firm sponsored the lunch for the "Legislative Spouses Auxiliary," adding, "Given that it occurred during the session, legislators were apparently unable to attend."

"That's an odd expenditure," Chervenak says. "Why would you need to be spending money on spouses?"

FOX 8 News and NOLA.com|The Times-Picayune reviewed six years' worth of records that lobbyists handed over to the state.

For some lobbyists, entertaining spouses of elected officials is common. In that time period, lobbyists entertained the wife of Senator Gerald Long at least 98 times, Senator Francis Thompson's spouse at least 68 times and Senator Neil Riser's wife at least 59 times.

All totaled, Riser's spouse received $1,743.15 worth of free meals and drinks from lobbyists. In all instances we examined, Riser was also there.

It's important to note that spouses receiving meals from lobbyists is allowed under the law. But one political analyst says it shouldn't be.

Political watchdog Elliott Stonecipher explains the practice this way: "You're taking gifts that you wish you could give a representative or a senator, you probably can't because of some part of this legal apparatus – I don't know whether it's state or federal - so what you do is you pass the money to the family, or to that representative or senator through that person's spouse."

In 2008, when lawmakers tightened ethics laws, they left a series of loopholes. Those ethics laws put a cap on how much a lobbyist can spend on an elected official per meal - it's now $58.

But look at a 2013 expense from lobbyist David Tatman: $31,000 on one reception, records show, for the entire legislature. Other than the $31,000 price tag, no other public records exist for this event. We have no way to know who went, which group hired the lobbyist, who attended and whether the money spent on them exceeded that $58 cap.

Tatman admitted by phone, "Most of the time it's a small portion of legislators" who attend events like this. He added, "I don't even know that I've been to an event where a majority of legislators were there." When we asked him the client for the $31,000 reception, he said he "can't recall."

"This is one of these loopholes in law that allows these kinds of expenditures without any real accountability," Chervenak says.

The most expensive reception in 2009 cost lobbyist Jeannie Dodd at least $43,446 – it was an event for the entire legislature at the Baton Rouge Hilton. Dodd told us by email, "There were approximately 300 Louisiana Home Builder Association members/guest in attendance and approximately 50 Louisiana legislators in attendance at the event."

"That's big dollars for a reception," Chervenak notes.

Of the money we reviewed, $2,338,110 of lobbyists' expenses were not dedicated to a particular individual. That's 80 percent of all lobbyist spending. We have no idea who it was spent on or what topic was lobbied.

"It is the place that a lot of oiling and greasing happens," Stonecipher tells us. "None of it is good."

The law firm Adams and Reese spent the most lobbying elected officials, at least $163,684. Second on the list is the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association with at least $81,497, followed by Entergy with at least $79,333.85, and the Louisiana Nursing Home Association with at least $77,697.

"If those dinners suddenly went away, the lobbyists and legislators who are not honest would have to find some other way to do those deals," Stonecipher says. "And I'm going to tell you, I don't know of a better way. They would struggle to come up with anything that is half that effective."

Remember Senator Neil Riser, whose wife was entertained 59 times by lobbyists. They entertained Riser more than any other senator, at least 249 times.

But spending is not limited to lawmakers. Lobbyists bought meals, coffee and drinks for La. Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain at least 142 times. Strain told us, "The majority of events attended by Commissioner Strain occurred in a group setting in which elected and non-elected guests attended." Strain also said there were some "inconsistencies" in the state's data.

Lobbyists entertained an assistant director in the state's Economic Development Office, Don Pierson, at least 97 times. The economic development head says Pierson is a "key liaison for more than a decade and frequently interacts with business and government leaders in a mission-appropriate manner."

They even treated some people to trips. That's another loophole in the law; lobbyists can pay for travel to conferences if it "enhances the servants' service." So a lobbyist paid for a $1,528.32 trip for Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to the Louisiana Sheriff Association's conference on the Gulf Coast. That same conference, another lobbyist for the Sheriff's Association paid for a state employee, Jeya Selvaratnam of the Department of Public Safety. That trip cost $2,110.25.

"You take someone on a junket and you've got a captive audience," Chervenak remarks.

Some lobbyists appear to skirt the law. The law requires lobbyists to disclose the subject matters they are discussing, who they are meeting and why they are lobbying. But in a report by Katie Chiasson, a lobbyist for Cleco, she lobbied public officials 65 different times in December 2014 but never disclosed the subject matter as required by law.

"It is critically important for the public to know that lobbying firms can't simply go rent or lease for a legislative session X-number of representatives and senators with the money that they have from some industry, be it oil and gas or health care or whatever it is," Stonecipher insists. "We want that whole transaction, those behaviors, to be reported, to be fully transparent therefore, and to be enforceable. We want people to get in trouble for buying or renting a state representative or senator."

Many lobbyists spend very little on food and drinks. And most follow the rules that have been put in place. Still, a review of the reports raises questions. In addition to entertaining spouses, some lobbyists also entertain and pay for lawmakers' children.

"I don't know what that means, to entertain a minor child," Chervenak tells us.

Lobbyists paid for the minor child of Representative Chris Broadwater on at least 39 different occasions and the child of Representative Stuart Bishop at least 32 times. Broadwater told us he often brings one of his children to events when he's being honored, and lobbyists may be disclosing many of these events.

So when is it appropriate to pay for that lawmaker's spouse or kid?

"In my mind it would not be appropriate," Chervenak says. "That's a benefit to that individual that no one else is getting."

We have no idea why the minor child is ever part of the lobbying efforts. In each instance, the lawmaker was also present at the lobbying event.

"I'm not sure you can do very much lobbying" in such circumstances, Chervenak says. "I think it's more about currying favor with that individual."

Registered lobbyists in Louisiana reported a total $2.9 million in expenses in the 2009-2014 period we analyzed.

In 2008, lawmakers passed what Governor Bobby Jindal called the “gold standard of ethics.” But according to our two analysts, the loopholes in some of the lobbying laws lack that golden luster.

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