Loopholes abound in some lobbyist gift bans

Name of Publication: 
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Excerpt of Article: 

By Chris Joyner

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A proposal to ban lobbyist gifts to state officials sounds pretty straightforward to most voters.

“B-A-N. It means none,” said Gordon Jones, a retired executive who lives in north DeKalb County.

“Nothing whatsoever,” said Jane Jones, his wife.

The Joneses are talking about eliminating gifts like these: In 2010, a lobbyist spent $17,000 to take House Speaker David Ralston, his family and staff to Europe to learn about high-speed trains. This summer, House Ways and Means Chairman Mickey Channell spent much of June at Florida resorts with lobbyists picking up the bill in exchange for his attendance at industry conferences. Every year, the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce spends more than $80,000 on a seafood feast for the entire Legislature.

But all of these perks could remain legal if Georgia legislators follow the example of other states, where loopholes are often written into the legislation. Ralston, who proposed the Georgia ban, declined to discuss how strict the ban might be. The AJC’s review of bans in other states finds that such laws often don’t go as far as voters might expect.  

Consider California, where lobbyists can’t take an official out to dinner, but the lobbyist’s employer can. Or Arizona, where lobbyists exploited a loophole in the law for years to send powerful state legislators to out-of-state football games. Or Iowa, whose $3 gift cap didn’t stop the state’s education chief from attending an expenses-paid conference in Brazil.

Alabama’s gift ban, on the other hand, has changed the way state leaders do business, a key ethics official said.

The proposed ban in Georgia is expected to come up in the legislative session that begins in three months.  ...

Robert Smith, chairman of the political science department at Kennesaw State University and an expert on legislative ethics, said voters expect a gift ban to effectively end special interest gifts to legislators. But there likely has to be some flexibility built in, he said.

“If you buy me a cup of coffee at a Starbucks, I guess I’m not sure this would influence me to take a stance one way or another,” he said. “But if you are flying me to a football game … well, gee, that just doesn’t look right. I think that truly is at the heart of what the lobbyists caps or bans are supposed to be.” 

Lobbyists gave meals, tickets to local lawmakers

Name of Publication: 
Marietta Daily Journal
Excerpt of Article: 
by Jon Gillooly
February 01, 2012

MARIETTA — No one is listed receiving any yachts, but lobbyists do buy meals and smaller gifts for Cobb lawmakers.

Whether it’s state Rep. John Carson (R-east Cobb) receiving a $200 Georgia Chamber of Commerce dinner paid for by a lobbyist with the University System of Georgia or a lobbyist with the Home Depot buying state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) a $100 ticket to the Georgia Chamber Eggs and Issues breakfast, lobbyists must report the money they spend on lawmakers to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. ...

Dr. Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said lunches and small gifts are acceptable to most people.

“It’s the larger items that generate the questions over ethics,” Swint said. “Georgia currently has no limit at all on what lobbyists may spend on public officials, which to many people creates an environment open to the influence of money and gifts. It also puts Georgia behind many neighboring southern states, including Tennessee and Alabama, that do have limits on how much lobbyists can spend.”

Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal - Lobbyists gave meals tickets to local lawmakers  

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