Money a political reality

AJC review: Top governor candidates took lobbyists' gifts

A few days before Republican gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel gave a recent speech condemning a culture of “sex, lies and lobbyists” under the Gold Dome, her campaign accepted a $5,100 check from the head of a lobbying team.

Since the beginning of 2006, Handel’s campaigns for secretary of state and governor have taken about $45,000 in contributions from lobbyists, including some of the top names at the Capitol. She’s also taken Rolling Stones tickets and a few inexpensive meals from lobbyists.

Still, in the world of gubernatorial politics Handel is far from unusual. She has taken less in lobbyist contributions and gifts than several of her fellow contenders in the 2010 race for governor, both Republican and Democrat.

In the wake of a lobbyist scandal that cost House Speaker Glenn Richardson his job, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed the records of the major gubernatorial candidates and found all have taken contributions and/or gifts from lobbyists. The contribution totals range from $118,000 over the past four years for Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine to a single, $150 contribution from a Washington, D.C., lobbyist to former Gov. Roy Barnes.

Atlanta lawyer Emmet Bondurant, former chairman of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said those contributions and gifts come with a price.

“All of that is given for a specific purpose, and that is ultimately to win favor that they [lobbyists] think they would not get if they didn’t give to them,” Bondurant said. “Those are not large contributions from people who are simply civic minded. And when politicians say my vote is not influenced by this, they have to think we all just fell off the turnip truck.”

Some, however, say it’s unrealistic to expect candidates not to raise money from lobbyists, considering the need for huge sums of money in a statewide campaign.

Handel’s campaign spokesman, Dan McLagan, said his candidate is beholden to no one.

“The reality is that 1 percent of her contributions came from lobbyists, which is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to any of the major candidates,” McLagan said. “Saying she can’t take any contributions from lobbyists is like saying that people opposed to sunburn shouldn’t be able to go outside during the day.”

A review of campaign and lobbyist disclosure reports by the AJC shows Oxendine, a Republican candidate for governor, received the most contributions for his campaigns for insurance commissioner and governor from lobbyists since the beginning of 2006.

Ex-state Senate leader Eric Johnson, another candidate for governor, has raised at least $92,000 from lobbyists for his campaigns for Senate and governor since 2006. Democrat Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who is running for governor, has collected at least $68,000 from lobbyists since the start of 2006. U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, accepted more than $47,000 in contributions from state and federal lobbyists or lobbying groups in 2009 alone.

Those figures are a small percentage of what candidates have raised but they don’t include money from special-interest political action committees with lobbyists at the Capitol. Johnson, in particular, benefitted heavily from contributions from special interest PACs when he served in the Senate.

Johnson also has taken more than $17,000 in gifts from lobbyists, more that any of the candidates. Most of that was for meals, but he also collected tickets to Falcons and Thrashers games and the 2006 Sugar Bowl.

Handel isn’t the only candidate to rail against the influence of lobbyists. Barnes began saying much the same thing early last year.

He cited as an example the General Assembly’s decision to let Georgia Power begin charging higher utility rates to pay for the construction of nuclear reactors six years before they are completed. Georgia’s biggest industries, which had lobbyists at the Capitol, were largely exempted.

When Barnes ran unsuccessfully for re-election in 2002, his campaign took at least $350,000 over a two-year period from lobbyists. This time around his campaign made it clear it wouldn’t accept money from statehouse lobbyists, although he took a $150 contribution from Washington lobbyist Tammy Boyd last year.

Ethics surged in importance at the statehouse this winter when Richardson’s wife publicly accused him of having had an affair with a utility lobbyist. Richardson resigned and a picture emerged of an out-of-control frat-house culture at the Capitol.

That led the House Republican Caucus to push a reform candidate, David Ralston, for speaker and brought a call for new ethics legislation.

Several bills have been introduced in the House this session to curtail spending by lobbyists on legislators. Lobbyists could go from having no caps on what they spend to being limited to gifts of no more than $100, which could cut out perks like NASCAR and concert tickets. Also being considered are public financing of judicial races and a one-year ban on top state employees returning to the Capitol to lobby.

Handel joined the chorus for change. She was the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to call for Richardson to resign, and she argued that complaints against legislators should be investigated by the State Ethics Commission and not fellow lawmakers, as is currently the case.

Handel resigned as secretary of state and on Jan. 5, jumped on the ethics issue. In a speech to more than 300 women at an Atlanta fund raiser, she decried the atmosphere at the Capitol as one in which “legislation passes or fails based on the size of the contribution, the lavish dinner, luxury trip.”

On Dec. 31, less than week before the speech, Handel received a $5,100 contribution from her former boss Eric Tanenblatt, a former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue and currently head of the national government affairs practice of the politically connected McKenna Long & Aldridge law firm. According to the State Ethics Commission, Tanenblatt is registered to lobby for AirTran, Amerigroup, Georgia Aquarium, Northside Hospital and Orbitz.

Since 2006, her list of contributors includes some of the Capitol’s most successful lobbyists, including Raymon White, Bruce Bowers, Tom Boller, Joe Tanner, Pete Robinson, Jay Morgan and the firm GeorgiaLink.

About one-third of her lobbyist money has come from Tanenblatt, White and Rob Simms, a former lobbyist whom she hired to be deputy secretary of state. Simms now works on her campaign.

Tanenblatt said he and his wife are friends of the Handels and he’s long been a supporter of her political efforts. He said it’s legitimate for her to declare herself the voice of reform, noting that she never served in the Legislature. He said her ethics have never been questioned.

“She is clean,” he said. “She has demonstrated by her behavior as an elected official and in her personal life that she’s someone of high ethical standards.”

Former Georgia Adjutant General David Poythress, a Democratic candidate for governor, said it’s difficult to steer completely clear of special interest money when so much cash is needed to run a viable statewide campaign. He has received $3,250 from lobbyists. But he said candidates shouldn’t try to portray themselves as reformers if they are taking lobbyists’ money.

“The fundamental issue is the kind of hypocrisy we are seeing when people take the money and rail against it and condemn lobbyists.”Johnson’s campaign manager, Ben Fry, said his candidate “can’t be influenced by money.” “One of the main reasons people invest in Eric’s campaign is that he doesn’t say one thing because it sounds good but then do another,” Fry said.

Oxendine said, “I have always had an open door for every citizen in this state and a strong track record of fighting hard for Georgia consumers. The only thing you will ever get from me is good government.”

Barnes, meanwhile, again urged candidates to stop taking money from lobbyists.

“Any candidate can talk the talk, but a candidate about cleaning up the mess at the Capitol and putting the focus on jobs, education and transportation should refuse contributions from those funding the mess,” Barnes said.

Former legislator Rusty Paul, a lobbyist for the nursing home industry and other interests, said the Richardson scandal hasn’t meant a drop in invitations he’s getting to attend campaign fund-raisers.

“They [candidates] are working just as hard as they ever did, they just don’t ask for as much,” Paul said. “I don’t know if that’s a recognition of the economic realities or not wanting to be quite as big a target for your headlines.”

Paul said lobbyists would cheer if lawmakers this session decided to put new limits on lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions.

“Nobody down there gives money, throws lavish dinners, because they enjoy it,” he said. “There is more of a fear factor in the process, rather than ‘I feel like I’m going to get something out of it.’

“You feel like you have to [spend] to be competitive with the lobbyist who might take somebody out to dinner and have access to a policy maker who is on the opposite side of you on a piece of legislation.

“If they put a cap on it, I haven’t heard a single lobbyist who didn’t say, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ ”


All the top candidates for governor in 2010 have taken contributions from lobbyists over the past few years. Below are the totals since the start of 2006, except where indicated:


John Oxendine: $118,000

Eric Johnson: $92,000

Nathan Deal: $47,000 (2009 only)

Karen Handel: $45,000


Thurbert Baker: $68,000

DuBose Porter: $16,000

David Poythress: $3,250 (since mid-2008)

Roy Barnes: $150 (2009 only)

Source: Campaign finance reports