By David Saleh Rauf
Capital News Service
The night before a powerful Senate panel voted to approve the state’s first alcohol tax increase in decades, one of the world’s largest liquor companies wined and dined 11 of the 13 committee members at a popular Colonial-era tavern.
The tab: $2,863.
Paid for by British liquor giant Diageo, the dinner is just a snapshot of the free meals and booze lawmakers received during the 90-day session from lobbyists and special interest groups trying to influence legislation and shape public policy.
Four-digit tabs for dinner parties are common because of ethics reform passed in 1999 that requires lobbyists to invite an entire legislative “unit,” such as a committee or delegation – an attempt to snuff out the perception of lobbyists peddling inappropriate influence by taking individual lawmakers to dinners.
The reform has brought greater transparency, lawmakers and lobbyists say.
But it’s also had unintended consequences, giving a group of influential lobbyists and their wealthy clients what observers say is an apparent upper hand over smaller lobbying shops and nonprofit groups whose clients lack deep pockets to fund receptions.
Analyzing ethics filings
A Capital News Service analysis of nearly 400 state ethics filings reveals that clients for a group of about 35 contract lobbyists from a cluster of firms accounted for roughly 47% of all the money spent on wining and dining lawmakers during the 2011 session. The group represents roughly 5% of the estimated 655 registered lobbyists in Maryland, but still spent $385,000 out of $811,644 in reported spending on legislative dinners and receptions from opening day to Sine Die. (For a detailed spreadsheet, click here.)
The meals are just one avenue that lobbyists have to get their messages across to legislators, but it’s an important one, according to some observers.
They argue the additional time lobbyists receive with lawmakers through dinner parties and receptions gives already influential firms and interest groups an extra edge over their competition who have been effectively shut off from a coveted avenue of access.
“It potentially creates an unequal playing field,” John Stierhoff, one of the top earning lobbyists in Annapolis, said of the current law. “I probably heard more in recent years about this issue from my friends in the nonprofit world.”
Stierhoff is a partner in Venable LLP, a firm whose clients shelled out roughly $25,000 to dine with lawmakers on seven occasions during the session.
At one event, members from the Maryland Defense Council mingled with lawmakers from House and Senate committees that handle criminal justice legislation over a $5,000 dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. A March 23 dinner at Reynold’s Tavern paired a Venable lobbyist with liquor distributors and Diageo officials alongside most of the Senate committee considering a hotly debated alcohol tax increase.
The committee voted 9-4 the next day to advance the tax increase on booze, bucking Diageo and the alcohol industry’s opposition to the bill. The General Assembly gave final approval to the alcohol tax increase on the final day of the session.
A lesson in influence
But the meal between Diageo and the Senate panel still is a lesson in legislative influence and access.
“Most people that don’t have big money behind them maybe get five minutes with legislators, whereas a dinner can buy you two hours,” said Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonprofit government watchdog group.
The so-called unequal playing field is the direct result of multiple ethics reforms in the 1990s and 2001 intended, in part, to limit cozy relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers that could blossom from paying for expensive dinners.
Lobbyists were barred from taking individual lawmakers to dinner in 1999, requiring them instead to invite the entire General Assembly, a delegation or a committee.
In 2001, after another round of ethics reform, lawmakers made lobbyists start filing disclosure forms five days in advance to announce a dinner invitation and 14 days after the meal to report spending totals.
The data from the dinner parties provides the only real-time glimpse of how money from lobbyists and their clients flows during a session. (Lobbyists don’t file financial disclosure forms detailing how much they’ve earned until well after the session ends.)
Two hundred invitations this session
During a legislative session, dozens of advocacy and citizen groups flock to Annapolis to hold receptions or other events to convey their messages to elected officials. This session, lawmakers were bombarded with nearly 200 invitations to dinner parties.
“It’s an occasion for the members to have a free meal and socialize with one another and to get together with constituents who are part of the organization,” said Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers.”But I don’t think lobbyists gain a lot by having 20 or 25 legislators for dinner.”
Some nonprofit groups, such as The Arc of Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay Savers, held a handful of dinner receptions during the session. But the lion’s share of wining and dining was done by some of the biggest lobbying firms in Annapolis.
The five highest-grossing lobbying shops in Annapolis in 2010, which combined to earn more than $11 million, spent about $213,000 during this year’s session to dine with lawmakers. That’s about 26 percent of the grand total for the entire session.
Top two: Alexander & Cleaver; Rifkin, Livingston
Alexander & Cleaver, P.A. and its clients topped the list during the 2011 session, shelling out $73,076 on 29 “special events” lawmakers were invited to. The firm’s restaurant of choice: Lewnes’ Steakhouse.
Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, LLC came in a close second with its long list of clients dropping $72,184 on dinner parties and receptions for lawmakers, state records show.
The three other top earning firms – Manis, Canning & Associates, Venable LLP and Harris, Jones & Malone – invited lawmakers to dinners and parties that totaled roughly $68,000, ethics filings show.
The five lobbying shops represent influential clients from the alcohol industry to oil and gas companies, from hospitals and health care firms to gambling interests.
“If a corporation or a group has the ability to take you out and provide you with a fancy dinner and a really nice evening, does that make you feel a little more comfortable with them, I don’t know?” said Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard. “But there’s an awful lot to be said in Annapolis about relationships. And this certainly is relationship building.”
Kittleman is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which was invited to dinner parties 33 times in 2010 – the most of any legislative panel. He normally shuns the events but said he paid his own way when he attended one this year.
“I don’t feel that’s an appropriate way to have those communications. It sends a perception to our constituents that folks who are able to take us to these really fancy dinners get preferential treatment,” he said. “Plus, those groups that don’t have the resources to put on a $10,000 dinner can come and sit on the other side of my table and spend 15 minutes on the issue, and they’re treated the same.”
Kittleman filed legislation this session to require lobbyists to report the names of lawmakers who attend committee and delegation dinners.
“At least people would know who attends,” he said, “then maybe people would think twice about attending.”
Kittleman’s bill died in committee, but it’s one of several attempts over the years to further regulate the process of lobbyists picking up the tab for meals.
Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat who helped craft current guidelines for lobbyist ethics in the 1990s, said the reforms are far from perfect, but the system is improved from what it was.
“There are some firms that can spend more than others,” he said. “It’s not entirely fair but everybody understands that’s the status quo.”