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Loopholes allow lobbyist spending to vanish from reports

Published April 30, 2013 1:01 am

2010 law • Groups no longer have to report cost of events if all lawmakers are invited.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Now you see it, now you don't.

Until three years ago, lobbyists' disclosure forms reported how much they spent to dine and entertain state legislators during their general session. sltrib.com/article.php?id=14519501&itype=storyID&keyword=&qtype=">In 2010, that was about $72,000 — and forms allowed figuring out how much of that went to each lawmaker.

But in a disappearing act worthy of Houdini, this year's forms report that lobbyists spent only $7,300 on lawmakers during the general session. No lawmaker took as much as $100 worth of free food, according to forms.

Lobbyists are still holding about as many events as before, but the spending is not showing up on public disclosures. Why?

Disappearing act • A law enacted in 2010 — billed as ethics reform to limit gifts to lawmakers — included a provision that exempts reporting meals and their cost if all members of the House, Senate, a committee or a party caucus are invited. All need not attend, but just be invited for an event to qualify for the disclosure loophole.

sltrib.com/sltrib/politics/55816272-90/utah-events-legislators-fire.html.csp">Social calendars for this year's session obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show that lobbyists and special interests scheduled at least 103 meals, receptions and evenings of entertainment such as movies or museum visits during the Legislature in which all members of the Senate or House were invited. Other events for members of individual committees may have occurred beyond that.

How many of those 103 events were reported on new lobbyists' disclosure forms, along with the costs?

Two.

The Utah Rural Telecom Association reported paying $5,110 on a banquet (by itself about two-thirds of all reported lobbyist spending this year), and the Utah Association of Conservation Districts reported spending $600 on a lunch for the Senate Republican Caucus.

The two groups likely did not need to report since all members of a chamber or caucus were invited, but they did anyway.

Gordon Younker, executive vice president of the conservation district group, said it reported the cost more out of habit from previous years and because he wasn't quite sure if all legislators — instead of just the Senate GOP caucus — had to be invited to be exempt from reporting.

"We probably wouldn't report it in the future if we're not required to," he said.

Of 435 registered lobbyists in Utah, only 15 reported spending any money on disclosure forms to dine lawmakers during the first quarter this year. And the relatively little they reported was spread among only 51 of the state's 104 legislators.

A list of what was reported this year is online at sltrib.com.

Some volunteer data • Most of the spending that actually was reported this year probably did not need to be revealed, but it was provided voluntarily by a few lobbyists anyway. In fact, only about $1,500 of the $7,300 reported clearly appears to have been required to be disclosed, and did not escape current loopholes.

An example of reporting that went beyond the letter of the law came from the father-and-son lobbying team of Paul and Jeff Rogers — who have multiple clients including insurance, medical and legal groups. They reported every dollar they spent on lawmakers and for whom it was spent, even if it were just paying $1 for a soda (which Jeff reported for three separate House members).

"Honestly, that's just being safe" in making sure reporting rules are followed, Jeff Rogers said. "Nobody's worth not following everything to the letter of the law," or even going a bit beyond it, "and making sure I'm above any finger-pointing or reproach."

The Rogerses reported spending $75 on small drinks and meals for nine lawmakers. By law, they didn't need to attach names to any meal in which they spent less than $10 a day, but they did anyway.

Lobbyists must attach names of lawmakers anytime they spend more than $10 on a meal for them. Several have said privately that legislators sometimes will pay the cost of a meal above $10 to escape having their names appear on disclosure forms as receiving a freebie meal.

Stan Lockhart, lobbyist for Micron and IM Flash and husband of House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, reported paying between $9.15 and $9.91 for three meals for legislators this year and did not reveal their names. In 2011, he reported spending $9.99 on meals for 16 legislators and did not reveal their names.

What loopholes miss • Some of the reporting that was forced despite loopholes is interesting.

For example, John Baldwin, executive director of the Utah State Bar, reported spending $474 on a freshman orientation dinner for 10 new lawmakers and $64 for an appreciation dinner for six legislators who are lawyers.

Baldwin said neither dinner quite appeared to fall into exemptions for reporting when all members of a chamber, committee or caucus are invited. "When in doubt, we disclose," he said. "We have nothing to hide."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also disclosed the cost of what its lobbyist William S. Evans listed as separate "appreciation dinners" held for Republican and Democratic leaders during the last week of the Legislature.

Evans listed spending $503 on those dinners attended by 21 legislative leaders and four top aides. It was reportable because apparently just leaders and not all members of a chamber, party or committee were invited.

Effect on ethics • The 2010 law creating the reporting loophole passed in part to help head off a competing ethics initiative that Utahns for Ethical Government was then attempting to place on the ballot to ban all gifts to lawmakers except "light refreshments."

The 2010 bill did such things as require lobbyists to disclose the name of any legislator on whom they spent more than $10 in a day for food, drink or other freebies (except those exempted by loopholes), and the amounts spent. It also banned spending more than $10 on a lawmaker for such things as tickets to concerts or shows.

Kim Burningham, a former legislator who is chairman of Utahns for Ethical Government, is disappointed in results of that 2010 law.

"If expenditures by lobbyists for lawmakers were actually reduced, that would be a good sign. But if it's decreased only because of loopholes, then the law is ineffective," he said. "It appears that is what has happened."

Burningham said his group will continue to push for more reform but does not plan another initiative drive for now. "The Legislature has made it so difficult in the number of signatures it requires and where they must be gathered that we don't have those plans in the immediate future."