State Senate leader's work as lobbyist raises questions

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, has been a paid lobbyist for a national special interest group and has advocated for the organization's positions  in Georgia, including co-sponsoring a state Senate resolution that supports its agenda.

Rogers' arrangement, which he said spanned parts of the past two years, raises questions as to whether he violated state conflict-of-interest rules governing the use of public office for personal gain.

Rogers was paid by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which describes itself on its website as an organization of "doctors and laypersons working together for compassionate and effective medical practice, research, and health promotion." The group's director of public affairs is Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a former Democratic candidate for president.

Rogers, who was identified in PCRM materials as the group's director of government affairs, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an e-mail that he worked for the  group for several weeks in late 2009 and again beginning in May of this year. He said he recently quit working for the group and does not plan to return.

Records that the organization filed with the U.S. Senate detailing its lobbying efforts indicate it spent nearly $500,000 in 2010 to lobby Congress on a variety of issues, including the Healthy Schools Meal Act of 2010, which would have created a pilot program to test "plant-based options for the USDA commodities program," among other things. It was not clear how much of that went directly to Rogers, as the group had several registered lobbyists.

Nothing in state law prohibits a state elected official from working as a lobbyist in Washington or in other states, said Rick Thompson, former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, although it is unusual. But Bill Bozarth, executive director of the state chapter of the watchdog group Common Cause, said it's something that should be avoided.

"Being a lobbyist for anybody is inappropriate if you're an elected official," Bozarth said. "It raises all kinds of questions of where their real loyalties lie: to the people of Georgia or the people who are paying them as a consultant."

Bozarth said much the same thing in 2008 about Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, who had registered as a lobbyist in Virginia in his role as vice president of government relations for Community Loans of America Inc., one of the largest car title and payday lending companies in the nation.

"It may not be against the law, but it raises far too many questions about where his loyalty lies when he [Mitchell] votes," Bozarth said at the time.

While Rogers said he was not paid by the PCRM from January through April of this year, the organization in March submitted an opinion column to the AJC written by Rogers. In pitching the submission, a PCRM staffer refers to Rogers as "Georgia's Senate majority leader." The column advocated support for the Healthy Schools Meal Act, and it included a tag line identifying Rogers in his role as majority leader of the Senate. It does not mention his work for the PCRM.

That same month, Rogers took part in a special event for the PCRM, the "bon voyage party for the Holistic Holiday at Sea Cruise," which, according to a release from the organization, featured "world-class vegan cuisine the night before the cruise departs."

Officials with the PCRM have not returned multiple calls and e-mails seeking comment.

In April, Rogers co-sponsored a resolution in the state Senate urging Congress and state agencies to improve the nutritional value of school lunches. It also encouraged Congress to "include plant-based meals and nondairy healthful beverage alternatives as an option for all students."

If Rogers was being paid by the PCRM as he advocated in favor of its issues as a state senator, he could have violated state laws governing conflicts of interest, said Thompson, who now acts as a consultant to public officials.

State law governing conduct of state lawmakers was changed during this year's legislative session. The new law, detailed in Code Section 45-10-90, takes effect in January. It describes a conflict of interest as a case when "an individual has multiple interests and uses his or her official position to exploit, in some way, his or her position for his or her own direct, unique, pecuniary, and personal benefit."

Under the new rules, anyone can file a complaint alleging a conflict of interest with the Senate (or with the House in cases involving state representatives). The complaint is then forwarded to the Senate Ethics Committee, which determines whether the complaint has merit. If it does, a hearing is held and the matter "may" be turned over to law enforcement.

Senate rules prohibit a member of the body from voting on "any question if the senator or any member of the senator's immediate family has a direct pecuniary interest in the result of such vote which interest is distinct, unique or peculiar to the senator or the senator's immediate family."

Thompson said the key is whether Rogers was being paid to pen the column and support the resolution.

"If he was hired and then did the resolution, I think there could be some concern as to whether it smacks of impropriety," Thompson said.

If he was advocating for the PCRM's issues based on his shared interests in the group's objectives, and not for pay, then there would likely be no problem. But while Rogers acknowledges he was paid by the group, he said it was not during March and April.

Rogers told the AJC he has a "keen interest in nutrition issues" and learned of the PCRM's work in 2009.

"I personally moved to a diet based heavily on fruits and vegetables on the advice of my doctor and have seen firsthand how proper diet can lower cholesterol, which has been a serious problem in my family for generations," Rogers said.

"Based on this interest, I worked with them on a part-time basis in a consultantlike capacity focused mainly on nutrition issues," he said.

During the 2010 legislative session, which covered January through April, Rogers said he did no work for the group and was not paid.