Weekly Briefing

A heckuva lot more than a cup of coffee

Why a lobby group’s gifts to lawmakers should provoke outrage and lots more scrutiny

Last week, NC Policy Watch investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska broke a story of great importance in the world of North Carolina politics and state government. After weeks of carefully reviewing public records and responses to information requests, Ovaska reported that a conservative education lobby group, Parents for Educational Freedom, paid to fly a group of 11 state legislators (including the Speaker of the House Thom Tills) as well as a legislative staffer, the group’s registered lobbyist and two unidentified businesspeople to Florida for a two-day trip that was clearly and admittedly designed to advance the group’s legislative agenda.

The trip took place during tourist season (March 14 and 15) and included free airfare, hotel accommodations and a luncheon at a tropical resort. The group’s official reports indicate that it spent $8,300.87 on plane tickets, meals and hotel rooms. After the trip was concluded, many of the same lawmakers received significant campaign contributions from a PAC associated with Parents for Educational Freedom and/or a Florida businessman who addressed the group on the trip.

The trip is of great importance for at least two reasons: 1) It creates a blatant and obvious appearance of impropriety and 2) It quite arguably violates state law.

The state of the law

Six years ago in the midst of the disastrous Jim Black bribery scandal, North Carolina passed a series of tough new laws designed to end the culture of “pay to play” politics that had infested state government for decades. At the core of these reforms was the simple and straightforward idea that it should be unlawful in North Carolina for lobbyists and groups that lobby government to give gifts to public officials: No travel, no basketball tickets, no rounds of golf, no swanky meals, and no cups of coffee, nothing.

The rationale was equally simple and straightforward: Gifts to public officials from people trying to win their favor are just wrong. Not only do such gifts give the appearance of corruption (and thus make it that much harder to ferret out genuine incidents of out and out bribery), but they also serve to provide the lobbyists and lobby groups that provide the gifts with access not available to other lobbyists and interest groups, much less the general public.

It was for this reason that, in 2006, North Carolina law was amended to make perfectly clear that public officials cannot accept gifts from lobbyists or groups that lobby. Here’s what the law was amended to say:

“No public servant, legislator, or legislative employee shall knowingly accept a gift from a lobbyist or lobbyist principal registered under Chapter 120C of the General Statutes. No legislator or legislative employee shall knowingly accept a gift from liaison personnel designated under Chapter 120C of the General Statutes.”

That’s the law. It’s still on the books. If a registered lobbyist invites a Senator or State Representative to the legislative cafeteria to talk about a proposal in the legislature (or, indeed to talk about the weather) he or she is forbidden from buying the lawmaker a cup of coffee.

The law surrounding trips and “educational” meetings

In a perfect world, lawmakers would have left the law as simple as that. Unfortunately, for a combination of reasons – some honorable and some not – lawmakers saw fit to enact some exceptions to the rule when they enacted the gift ban law. Perhaps most prominent and relevant to the discussion at hand is the matter of “educational meetings.”

The law says that it’s not illegal for specified public officials to accept “reasonable actual expenditures… for food, beverages, registration, travel, lodging, other incidental items of nominal value, and entertainment” from lobby groups in connection with their attendance at certain “educational meetings.” The law then goes on to define which kinds of “educational meetings” are okay and which are not.

This is by any fair assessment a terrible and unnecessary exception. There is simply no good reason that lobbyists or lobby groups of any kind should be allowed to pay for lawmakers to attend meetings anywhere (“educational” or not) – much less in some luxurious, far off resort.

If these meetings are truly important to a lawmaker’s service, then they ought to be provided with some sort of publicly-funded allowance provided by taxpayers. Let lawmakers apply to an impartial arbiter and/or justify their expenses to voters rather than allow them to be wined and dined by lobby groups. As a matter of clear and honest public policy, this would have been the best solution.

Still, however, even under these flawed exceptions provided in current law, it’s very hard to see how the Florida trip documented by Ovaska is legal. Here’s why:

The clear implication of the law (click here and scroll down to subsection (e) (3) to read it) is that it is intended to bless attendance at public or quasi-public meetings that are truly “educational” – i.e. attendance at an event hosted by public bodies or perhaps, a non-partisan group like the National Conference of State Legislatures. The language in the law talks about the need for a “formal agenda” and “notice” of the event that is “given” 10 days in advance.

While someone intent upon rule-bending might try to make a trip to a hotel to meet with lobbyists and other advocates for one point of view “educational,” it’s hard to see how this argument can be taken seriously.

Indeed, a 2007 article in the newsletter of the State Ethics Commission – the group charged with enforcing the law – says as much: “If the meeting’s primary purpose is to influence a public servant, legislator, or legislative employee with respect to executive or legislative action (rather than educate them on a legitimate subject), the meeting is not ‘educational,’” the newsletter states. The mere fact that Republican and Democratic legislators received the gifts does not somehow make everything okay.

As Ovaska reported, Parents for Educational Freedom President Darrell Allison publicly admitted that the purpose of the trip was to help “lay the groundwork” for his group’s legislative agenda.

Moreover, if the trip documented by Ovaska does meet the “educational meeting” exception, then the law is utterly meaningless. Think about it: By such “logic,” Duke Power would be fully within its rights to fly the entire membership of the General Assembly to France for an all-expense paid trip to learn about that country’s nuclear energy grid. Americans for Prosperity would be free to wine and dine lawmakers at some Koch Brother soiree in a posh resort. The gambling industry would be free to jet dozens of state officials to Las Vegas for a “fact-finding” mission.

This simply cannot be the state of the law. If it is, the exception is swallowing the rule and it is in desperate need of an immediate rewrite.

Going forward

So what happens next? With any luck, public outrage will help spur state ethics officials to step up to the plate to investigate the matter. The law specifies a variety of sanctions that may be imposed upon offending officials. If lawmakers are found to have benefited from gifts unlawfully, they should be held accountable (as should Parents for Educational Freedom).

Regardless, however, of whether there are formal sanctions, let’s hope that, ultimately, the message is delivered loud and clear to all state officials, lobbyists and lobby groups in North Carolina that lobbying trips of this kind are not “educational meetings” and are permanently forbidden.

 (This article was updated to make clear that the 2006 reform laws were passed in the midst of the Jim Black scandal, not after it had happened).

 

 

Image above from Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.