Lobbyists seek journalists’ opinion on new ethics reform bill

The AJC’s Jay Bookman and others are invited to critique the bill, which exempts attorneys from lobbying rules

Does Georgia’s new ethics reform bill (as yet unsigned by Gov. Nathan Deal) create more new opportunities for abuse than it eliminates? How can a $75 cap on meals and gifts be considered meaningful when a lobbyist can give several, separate $75 meals to the same official on the same day? And what can lobbyists possibly do to seem, well, less scuzzy?

Those are among the expected topics of discussion this coming Monday, when the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association holds its annual post-legislative session get-together. This year, the focus is on the big ethics bill that passed on the final night of the General Assembly with a late assist from the governor. And, for the first time, the GPLA has invited veteran Gold Dome beat writers James Salzer and Aaron Gould Sheinin of the AJC and Walter Jones from Morris News Service, as well as AJC columnist Jay Bookman—to offer their jaded journalists’ perspective on the so-called ethics reform.

What are the lobbyists likely to hear? Well, Bookman says he plans to condemn the way the bill was “rewritten at the last minute and crammed with all sorts of bad provisions.”

“I think the Tea Party got played,” he says of one of the major advocates for reform. “I’d say the new ethics bill is even worse than the existing law.”

The two provisions that critics cite as the biggest problems with the new bill are the $75 cap on gifts and an exemption for attorney lobbyists. While the $75 cap is the first dollar limit imposed on lobbyist generosity, it applies “per occurrence,” meaning the same lobbyist likely could treat a politician to a $75 lunch, a $75 dinner, and a $75 strip-club outing, all in the same day. An even bigger loophole allows lobbying firms to divide up large gifts—concert tickets, hotel rooms, etc.—into $75 increments between their individual lobbyists. In other words, you can skirt the limit entirely if you’ve got a big enough staff.

But the most egregious of the many holes in the bill is a provision that exempts attorneys from needing to register as lobbyists as long as they are “representing a client”—which, let’s face it, is what lobbyists do. And if you’re not a registered lobbyist, you don’t need to follow the disclosure requirements—and you aren’t bound by the gift cap or other restrictions. In that one action, the bill exempts a large percentage of current lobbyists from having to follow the rules in the future.

That provision was added in the Senate during wee-hour negotiations on the penultimate night of the legislative session, although the final bill didn’t find its way onto lawmakers’ desks for review until the following evening. Critics of the bill suggest that the delay was intentional, so that tired legislators wouldn’t have time to spot problem before a vote was called.

Jet Toney, the GPLA’s volunteer chairman, says the group’s membership strongly opposes any move that allows folks to engage in lobbying without needing to register.

“It’s unfair for some people to be able to avoid the regulations and fines that registered lobbyists are subject to,” he says

Toney hopes the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission—formerly the Georgia Ethics Commission—will be able to bring some clarity to the nebulous new bill by establishing clear-cut rules for lobbyist conduct.

According to scuttlebutt among lobbyists, the two provisions cited above were added to the bill at the behest of one of the city’s largest law firms, and that, ironically, the changes weren’t aimed at influencing lawmakers at the capitol, but rather a small group of elected regulators. Because the law firm in question represents a major utility corporation, it wanted a freer hand in wining and dining members of the Georgia Public Service Commission while discussing cost overruns at one of its client’s facilities, so the theory goes.

If Deal does sign the bill, someone out there might be saying, “Mission accomplished.”