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Lobbyists spend big during legislative session

Local lawmakers accepted event tickets, dinners

POSTED: April 26, 2011 12:18 a.m.

State lawmakers know how to work hard, and some also know how to play hard.

During the 2011 legislative session, lobbyists passed around tickets to Wrestlemania, a Falcons playoff game and the Gwinnett Arena circus.

The more than $3,000 worth of wrestling tickets that changed hands were just a fraction of the nearly $1 million that lobbyists shelled out for meals, drinks, tickets and gifts for legislators and bureaucrats since Jan. 1, according to lobbyist reports on the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission website.

Leaders of the 236-member General Assembly were targeted by lobbyists trying to influence hundreds of bills, from a failed tax overhaul to proposals dealing with Sunday alcohol sales and immigration.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and his staff were treated to a $308 lunch by Georgia 360, a $225 Falcons playoff ticket by AMB Group, $300 in meals from Usry Consulting, a $400 hunting trip from Georgia Conservancy and a $108 dinner from the University System of Georgia.

Among area lawmakers, Rep. Carl Rogers of Gainesville accepted some of the priciest offerings, including $416 in Atlanta Falcons’ playoff tickets from Comcast; dinners worth $305 from Georgia Power; $198 for a meal and two bottles of wine from Select Management Resources; and $165 from Munich American for a meal; $225 for four Southeastern Conference basketball tickets; and $410 for five Wrestlemania tickets.

“We did go to several events, and the Wrestlemania tickets were comp tickets, so I offered to take my three grandchildren,” Rogers said Monday. “We also went out to eat a few times, mostly to Po Folks.”

For some expensive dinners, such as the Georgia Power dinner, Rogers believed the event was a reception.

“We were invited to meet a vice president and almost didn’t go but did go to the sit-down dinner and ate, and they disclosed what the dinner cost,” he said. “Another Saturday night event was a wine-tasting to meet a man whose family owns a large winery in Italy, and he gave us bottles of wine. No legislation was discussed, but we still disclose it all.”

In contrast, Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, was listed accepting only seven lobbying gifts, the biggest being $112 worth of circus tickets from Feld Entertainment.

Rep. Tommy Benton accepted a $152 dinner from Georgia Power, $120 in basketball tickets from the University System of Georgia and $150 in Wrestlemania tickets.

Rep. Doug Collins had only two items more than $100: a $112 dinner for himself and his wife from Georgialink Public Affairs and $112 in circus tickets. However, Collins said Monday he did not attend the circus and is working to remove the item from his list.

“That’s a mistake on the report. All legislators are offered the circus tickets, and my assistant said we might go, but we never went,” he said. “The dinner expense was for the night before session started. It was a dinner for 60 people with probably 10-12 legislators and we all sat together and talked amongst ourselves.”

For many lobbyist-sponsored events with meals, the total cost is divided among the legislators who are present.

“You may have a salad, but you still will see that high price. The main thing is to be clear and transparent,” Collins said. “I don’t do a lot of those events. I come home after session almost every night.”

Freshman state Sen. Butch Miller was lobbied far more modestly. His most expensive item listed was a $35 meal.

“Other than that one dinner, I don’t recall being at anything individual,” Miller said. “From time to time, I’ve found it necessary to spend time with legislative specialists, but as a rule, there’s plenty of time to talk with them during the day. Only on a couple of occasions did I not make supper at home each night.”

Miller also sees the lobbyist role as a “convoluted” one.

“They can be a great source of firsthand knowledge about the industries they represent, and many have great backgrounds in that area, particularly health care by its very complicated nature,” he said. “A lot of honorable people are doing a very good job, and they’re important for legislators trying to make a decision.”

However, Miller understands the need to keep reports open and accountable.

“They play a very positive role as a whole, but I think we’ve seen instances in the not too distant past where spending by lobbyists has been excessive,” he said. “That would concern anybody anywhere.”

For most lobbyists, it’s just part of the job. Sammy Smith, president of Gainesville-based public relations group Rainmaker & Associates, travels to Atlanta each week to represent clients.

“Our company engages in lobbying activities on behalf of clients who may neither have time or wherewithal to be at the state Capitol regularly,” he said. “It’s a service we offer to a variety of clients, hence trying then to meet with state legislators during the General Assembly session for fact-finding or attend committee meetings where legislation is debated.”

Smith met with each Hall County delegate this year, often spending a small amount on meals or snacks for the office.

“All of the relationships are based on the working day,” Smith said. “We always remember there are also staff members who work for the General Assembly with whom we try to maintain relations throughout the year.”



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