Friday, March 24, 2006

Showers of Blessing

A Georgia Republican legislator claims that when lobbyists gave him a wedding shower, they were not seeking his blessing on legislation. Right. When I got married, the wedding showers were hosted by near and dear family friends. The gifts came from people close to us or our parents. Many of them had profound influence on our lives then, and now. But my friends were not lobbyists, and I was not serving in the Georgia Legislature.

Rep. Stacey Reece's (R-Gainesville) recent wedding shower, at the rather pricey 191 Club in Atlanta, was hosted by twenty-one lobbyists, many of whom represent concerns with much to lose or much to gain this legislative session. The fact that this occurred at all is, oh, I don't know, absurd, horrid, ridiculous, slimy- pick an adjective. Rep. Reece's defense of accepting this huge gratituity is even worse. He is so out of touch with the problem of lobbyists wielding undue influence that he defended his actions by saying, "Whether someone buys you a vase or a dish towel has no more bearing than if a lobbyist takes you out to a committee dinner and pays for that."

Exactly. While I'm betting there were very few dish towels in the gift display, the Rep. got it right- he is just too blinded by a culture that routinely accepts a few big guns picking up the tab to see the problem.

Let me spell it out. Voters are not as dumb as he thinks we are. Go ahead, try to convince me that our elected listen with equal attention to the people who don't buy the dinners, the tickets- and now provide the wedding showers-(what's next, is the travel agent industry going to provide the honeymoon?). And then try to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. You'll have equal success. We know exactly what the score is. And if we didn't, all we would have to do is compare the money spent by lobbyists with the legislative agenda. These guys (and gals) get results.

We need "cup of coffee" lobbyist reform right now. And if the crew in Atlanta does not have the courage to de-rail their gravey train, then the voters are going to have to do it for them.

See below, the entire article about this issue, published today in the AJC:
Lobbyists shower legislator with party (AJC)Nancy Badertscher, Ann Hardie - StaffFriday, March 24, 2006
The engagement party invitation let guests know that the loving couple could use a set of martini glasses and a place setting for 12 of their china.
Nothing out of the ordinary there --- except that the bridegroom is a state legislator and the 21 people hosting the wedding shower are lobbyists, many with interests in some of the biggest bills under consideration by the Georgia General Assembly.
The betrothed, Rep. Stacey Reece (R-Gainesville), called the event held in his honor Tuesday night at the private, upscale 191 Club in downtown Atlanta "appropriate."
"Whether someone buys you a vase or a dish towel has no more bearing than if a lobbyist takes you out to a committee dinner and pays for that," Reece said.
Others thought the event crossed the line. House Republican leaders noted the distinction between a committee dinner and an engagement party and questioned Reece privately about the appropriateness of having lobbyists pay for such a personal affair.
"I would have handled it differently," said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island). "But I accept Rep. Reece at his word that he viewed this as friends wanting to do something for him and nothing more."
Public watchdogs said most Georgians don't see it that way. Jill Johnson of the Georgia Public Interest Research Group said the party feeds the perception that lobbyists and legislators have too cozy a relationship.
And Emmet Bondurant, former chairman of Common Cause Georgia, said the event "raises serious questions of appearance of undue influence."
Friendships between lobbyists and lawmakers are a fact of life under Georgia's Gold Dome. They are cemented over the many dinners and events that the two groups share after the daily debates and committee meetings --- mostly on the lobbyists' tabs. In 2005, lobbyists spent $1.1 million on meals, tickets to sporting events, and other gifts for lawmakers.
Freddi Hagin, the lobbyist who organized the party, said every lobbyist asked to host the shower is a friend of Reece's. "We gave him a little party to celebrate his happiness," Hagin said.
Lobbyists said Reece met his bride-to-be, Amanda Wilson, at the Capitol where she had volunteered to take blood pressure readings one day. Wilson is a professor at Mercer University's Southern School of Pharmacy.
When lobbyists approached him about throwing a shower, Reece said, he told them they could do so "as friends," not as lobbyists representing clients.
"I don't think we should be precluded as elected officials from being able to enjoy things that our constituents enjoy," he said.
Although all 180 House members received an invitation, Hagin said, there weren't many among the three dozen guests who dined on beer and wine, fruit and cheese, bacon-wrapped scallops and cream cheese and artichoke pastry.
Some lawmakers said they didn't go because they disapproved of lobbyists hosting such a personal affair. And some said they didn't like the invitation hinting that gifts were expected by directing them to Reece's bridal registries at Belk and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
State Rep. Ben Bridges (R-Cleveland) stopped by the party but said he wasn't aware lobbyists were hosting it. "My district is next to his," Bridges said. "I just did it out of respect for him."
Among the lobbyists hosting Reece's party were those involved in some of the more controversial issues of the session, including proposed reforms to the title pawn industry and construction of a natural gas pipeline from the coast to Atlanta.
Reece, who was elected to the Legislature in 2003, recently was appointed by House Speaker Glenn Richardson as one of a small group of important "hawks," legislators who can swoop into any committee and cast a vote.
Hagin, whose clients include the Georgia Council of Public Libraries and the Assisted Living Association of Georgia, said that she "has no political dealings" with Reece. "He has never carried any of my bills," she said.
But Hagin acknowledged that Reece does vote on legislation that comes before the full House.
Hagin said the party cost $1,091, about $52 per lobbyist/host. About half of the three dozen guests brought gifts, those who attended the party said.
Trip Martin, whose lobbying firm represents a company advocating for the pipeline, was not a gift giver. "We're happy for Stacey and his fiancee," he said. "We'll disclose the expenditure."
Although lobbyists hosting the party called it a private affair, all said they plan to disclose their portion of the cost on reports they file with the State Ethics Commission. State law requires that lobbyists report any expenditure they make on behalf of a lawmaker.
Reece said that his wedding next month will be private.
There will be, however, a post-wedding reception planned for 350 guests. Although Jim Walters, owner of one of Georgia's largest small-loan chains, has offered his Gainesville farm for the event at no cost, Reece says that he will be paying for his own party.
Walters networks with regulators, makes campaign contributions and tracks the work of legislative committees that deal with lending issues.
"Jim is a personal friend of mine, a constituent," Reece said. "Must be a slow news day."


Tina said...

What comes next...birthday parties?
Anniversary celebrations? A line needs to be drawn somewhere.

CatherineAtlanta said...

One more (well, many more, I suppose) reason(s) to get all money out of politics. Like you, Amy, I find it absurd to think that "gifts" of any sort do not influence our elected officials. Isn't it enough that they are paid to lobby our officials. Would that I could spend all day each day at the Gold Dome pulling elected officials out to explain my reasons to support or not support legislation. Alas, I have a business to run by which I pay my taxes that pay their salaries and expenses. But, gifts, lunches, dinners, and travel too... Yes, absurd.