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It’s cheating, but not illegal, for lobbyists to split up expenses to hide the identity of politicians they woo.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Clarification: Data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project show six clients of the same lobbying firm reported spending $71 apiece on dinner for three unidentified individuals at Morton’s Steakhouse on Dec. 19, 2012. An analysis by The Roanoke Times, not VPAP, concluded the expenses were all related to the same meal. That point was not clear in the Sept. 1 editorial, “Where’s the beef in lobbyist disclosures?”
Hunton & Williams is a prestigious Richmond law firm with a long list of high-dollar clients, so when one of its lobbyists went schmoozing at Morton’s The Steakhouse last winter, it’s fair to assume the guests were not asked to limit their orders to the soup and salad section of the menu.
And yet the official cost-per-mouth for that dinner came to just $24 per person, thus allowing the legislators or state government officials to remain cloaked in anonymity as they chewed on their iceberg lettuce.
But let’s get real. They were munching on filet mignon or some other choice cut of Angus. The total bill for three came to $426, according to an analysis by The Roanoke Times. That’s $142 per person for those who don’t have a calculator handy. According to state law, the identities of the diners is required if the tab reaches $50 per person. But the lobbyist split the bill among six clients: Virginia Uranium, Appalachian Power Co., Virginia Credit Union League, Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield and Genentech.
It’s cheating, but it’s not illegal under Virginia’s squishy ethics laws. Seventy percent of entertainment expenses reported by lobbyists did not identify the recipients, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Lobbyists say it’s standard practice to divide the costs among all or a group of their clients if they are not talking shop, but merely making nice with powerful politicians. It would be naïve, though, to think it’s merely coincidental that the result allows lobbyists to disguise the value of their largesse and the recipients.
Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Bedford County, tried to close this check-splitting loophole back in 2010, but his bill was punted in a committee vote by a bipartisan group of 11 Democrats and four Republicans, including Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg. In a show of geographic loyalty, Democratic Sens. John Edwards and Phillip Puckett were the only members to object to the bill’s ill treatment.
Smith’s bill should be resurrected next year, but as part of a larger effort built around creation of an independent ethics commission with the power to audit lobbyist and legislator gift reports, and to impose penalties that will motivate compliance, unlike the $50 per day fine for lobbyists who file more than 10 days late.
As Smith knows, meaningful reforms aren’t popular with a majority of his colleagues or the lobbyists. But voters are on his side, and delegates and senators unwilling to beef up ethics laws should be put out to pasture.
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