After voting for ban, legislators take free tickets

On Opening Day, state Sens. Don Balfour, Tyler Harper and state Rep. Jay Roberts had great seats to see the Atlanta Braves defeat the Philadelphia Phillies 7-5.

The $70 seats came courtesy of longtime lobbyist Trip Martin. Just four days earlier all three lawmakers had voted to outlaw such freebies.

House Bill 142, which limits food and travel paid for by lobbyists to $75 and bans gifts of pure entertainment, like ballgames, passed both the House and Senate unanimously on the final day of the 2013 legislative session. But even though every legislator voted for the bill and applauded themselves for doing so, several immediately began accepting the gifts anyway.

» These gifts could be banned next year

The bill, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal Monday, doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, so the lawmakers are not violating it.

Martin, one of the most influential members of the lobbying corps, represents the Atlanta Braves. He squired six lawmakers to the Braves’ April 29 game — including, once again, Rep. Roberts and Sen. Harper — against the Washington Nationals as well. He said the lawmakers who attended the two games on the Braves’ dime were following the law – as it exists now.

“I’d like to think people operate under current law,” Martin said. “And, if they choose to act as how the law that passed is going to affect them in January, that’s their individual decision. But our firm and our clients, we advise them to follow whatever the existing law is.”

» Read more AJC  investigative and watchdog stories

Roberts, R-Ocilla, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he’ll happily pay for his own tickets in the future.

“I’ve built up a good relationship with the Braves and tried to help them with a number of different issues,” Roberts said.

There was another elected official at both Opening Day and the April 29 game: Gov. Nathan Deal. But the governor, who last week signed the ethics bill into law, has a longstanding policy, established by executive order, that bars executive branch employees from accepting gifts worth more than $25.

Martin said Deal paid for his own tickets to the ballgames.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor typically uses campaign funds to pay for such events.

“The governor’s executive order is very clear and we adhere to it,” Robinson said. “When we accept tickets, we write a check. We don’t do it in cash or by credit card, we write a check for any event we attend where we are getting a ticket from a lobbyist or someone who has business with the state.”

» New ethics law creates uncertainty

The governor’s generosity with campaign funds, however, only extends so far. Robinson said he wrote a personal check to pay for his own ticket to the April 29 game, where Deal signed legislation creating an Atlanta Braves Foundation license plate.

Lobbyists bought at least 18 tickets in April for members of the General Assembly. Many were for Braves games, but some lobbyists simply reported the gift as a “ticket.” Those generic tickets were given the same time the Master’s golf tournament was taking place in Augusta.

Several public officials also accepted meals and travel in excess of the $75 cap, but whether those would count as violations depends on how the law is interpreted.

For example, the law forbids public officials from accepting meals in excess of $75 per lobbyist. On April 6, a lobbyist for the University System of Georgia took Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, and his wife out for a $90 dinner.

Is that in excess of the $75 cap or could Davis claim his dinner was $45 and therefor under it?

Davis said he believes the cost should be apportioned, which would put him well under the cap. Davis said the dinner was an event at Georgia State University with visiting South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela.

“There was nothing improper about that event,” he said. “I am confident that it was $45 per person.”

Likely these are the kinds of questions that the state ethics commission will have to ponder when it begins interpreting the law after it takes effect next year.

The Georgia Association of Professional Lobbyists is preparing a list of questions for the ethics commission to consider, said chairman Jet Toney.

Like many in the General Assembly, Davis said the ethics reforms were necessary to answer complaints from the public, but that millions spent by lobbyists in meals, concert tickets and trips over the years have had no direct impact on public policy.

“I am just not aware of any situations where people are deceptively doing business … at the expense of legislation or public policy,” he said.

While most lobbyists gifts are directed at state legislators, the law binds local officials too, something that may come as a surprise to those officials.

Last month Bryce Holcomb, a lobbyist for banking concern Citigroup, treated four Douglas County commissioners and the county administrator, county clerk and deputy clerk to dinner at the annual meeting of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia in Savannah. The tab came to $97.43 a person; the lobbyist listed that the topic of conversation at the dinner was the county’s November bond referendum.

Commission Chairman Tom Worthan said the county has done business with Citigroup for years, but he said he did not know Holcomb was a registered lobbyist.

“On the local level we don’t deal with many lobbyists, to tell you the truth,” he said.

Worthan said he planned to ask the county’s lawyers to brief the commission on the new law before it takes effect.

“We might make a decision out here to pass local ethics legislation that is tougher than (the new state law),” he said. “The best thing to do if you don’t know is don’t accept the invitation, and that’s probably what I’m going to do going forward.”

Lobbyist spending is down dramatically over the past two years – a result of public attention paid to the practice. Lobbyists reported spending $13,872 on public officials in April, a decline of nearly two-thirds from the same month last year. Year to date, lobbyists have spent 36 percent less in meals, tickets and trips for public officials than in 2012.

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