The UGA-Vanderbilt football game Oct. 4 was also legislative day for state lawmakers on the UGA campus. The university spent $18,000 on meals, entertainment and football as legislators mingled with college administrators in the rowdy atmosphere of Sanford Stadium. UGA won the game, 44-17. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

Ethics exemption for colleges means free football for lawmakers

Loophole in 2013 reform exempts university system lobbyists. Georgia lawmakers cash in on free football tickets and meals.

State lawmakers have hailed new lobbying reforms as “historic” because they set the first-ever limits on what freebies public officials could accept.

But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered legislators and other public officials are using a loophole in the law to continue to receive the kind of goodies the public assumed were outlawed.

The reforms took effect this year, banning free tickets, golf games and anything of value over $75. But the same bill changed the definition of lobbyist to exclude public employees, including university system lobbyists who are among of the most generous at the Capitol.

As a result, lawmakers got prime seats to watch the Bulldogs hammer Auburn, the Yellow Jackets scrape by Georgia Southern and the Georgia State Panthers manage their only win this fall, free of charge.

University System lobbyists spent more than $20,000 this fall on football tickets, game-day meals and mixers for lawmakers. Overall, they had spent more than $48,000 on lawmakers through the end of November, according to reports collected from schools by the AJC using the Open Records Act.

Even though the total is down from last year, colleges remain the biggest spenders on lawmakers among the State Capitol’s lobbying corps.

Because they don’t have to register as lobbyists, they also don’t have to report to the state what they spend. And they don’t have to abide by the ban on game tickets and the $75 limit on meals, which they exceeded about 20 times during 2014, according to school records. Some schools, such as UGA, handed out more free football tickets than they did last year, when they had to report.

Tom Daniel, the University System’s longtime vice chancellor for external affairs, said the system and its schools didn’t lobby lawmakers to exempt them from the ethics reform bill that passed in 2013 and took effect this year.

“We just want to follow the law,” Daniel said. “We’re just going to do as we are told.”

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, an advocate of stronger ethics laws, said University System lobbyists should have to register and report what they spend, just like other lobbyists.

“Anybody who is paid to influence public policy ought to have to register,” McKoon said. “I am not sure being employed by the state should be an excuse to not have to register.”

But House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, spearheaded the reforms and said in a statement that they were working as anticipated. University lobbyists are different, he said.

“These state employees serve as an informational resource to legislators on matters pertaining to state government operations which occasionally may include meetings or site visits to public institution,” he said.

Ralston said the Georgia exception mirrors federal law, but that’s not quite right. Federal agency lobbyists do have to register and are bound by the same gift restrictions as other lobbyists, said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a non-partisan group that advocates for tougher ethics laws in Washington.

Holman worked with members of Congress to draft the current lobbying law and said members cannot take gifts from lobbyists regardless of where they work.

However, he said there is a loophole that allows members to accept gifts directly from the agencies themselves, rather than their paid lobbyists. Where do you see this most often? From state universities looking to put football tickets in the hands of their local delegation, he said.

So, in that way, Georgia’s example does somewhat mirror Washington’s.

Some lawmakers said the General Assembly exempted state employees from registering because their colleagues simply got tired of showing up on ethics commission reports showing they received ballgame tickets and pricey meals. Others say they philosophically oppose making state staffers who represent their agencies before the General Assembly register as lobbyist and disclose what they spend since they are public employees, not hired private guns.

While the schools now don’t have to report what they spend, they still keep track of it, and the AJC requested an accounting of what they spent through the end of November. Each of the top schools complied, and only Kennesaw State University billed the AJC to provide what the schools had been reporting to the state ethics commission for free before this year.

The big dawg

Lobbyists working for the University of Georgia logged $22,589 in spending on public officials this year. That’s about half of all spending by the entire university system.

Despite the new reforms, UGA lobbyist Patricia Chastain said 2014 was pretty much like any other year.

“We did things about the same this year. We continued to host legislators on campus and at football games,” she said. “It didn’t seem to be a drastic difference.”

If anything, lawmakers were more comfortable dining or playing golf or asking for football tickets from Chastain now that she was not legally required to report.

In 2013, amid heated debate over ending or severely limiting this vending machine approach to influencing policy, lawmakers did not take a single gift from Chastain valued at more than $70. One-on-one meals with Chastain that year came in at a median cost of $25.

But this year, officials loosened their belts and unfolded their palms. In April, a group of legislators took a trip to the Athens campus for an $85-per-plate dinner — something private lobbyists could not do. In September, Rep. Earl Erhart, R-Powder Springs, a UGA alum and chair of the Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee, was treated to a dinner valued at $98.44.

But the real currency for UGA’s lobbying effort is football.

Chastain was a solid source for UGA tickets in 2013 — before the “reforms.” That year, she reported giving out $5,350 in free tickets to public officials.

In 2014, when lawmakers knew she no longer had to report those freebies, Chastain was hit up for $6,110 in tickets, including some lawmakers who came back again, again and again.

Chastain’s best customers were House Appropriations Chairman Terry England; Reps. Carl Rogers and Chuck Williams, the chair and vice chair of the House Higher Education Committee; and Sen. Frank Ginn, who has no committee assignments directly related to UGA but is a graduate. Together they received at least $2,187 in meals, gifts, golf and football tickets from Chastain.

Chastain said getting lawmakers on campus is important to the university. UGA is in the middle of a capital campaign and being able to introduce powerful legislators to potential donors helps in the credibility department, she said.

But given the protracted debate over lobbyist reform, is such spending appropriate? Chastain said that is not something she has discussed with anyone.

“That’s probably a better question for the chancellor or the system office,” she said. “I’m going to follow the law, whatever it is.”

The system has a lot at stake each time lawmakers meet for their annual legislative session. The state appropriated more than $1.9 billion for the system this year, along with over $200 million in bonds for construction projects. Lawmakers frequently debate college programs and policies. In recent years, lobbyists have worked to beat back efforts to expand where people can take guns on campuses, including dorms and classrooms.

Targeting the purse strings

Budget writers are among the schools’ biggest lobbying targets.

For UGA, that includes England, R-Auburn, who lives close enough to Athens that he’s almost part of the local legislative delegation.

UGA reports showed school lobbyists spent $170 for a meal on England and a guest, and another $63 for golf, a few weeks after the 2004 legislative session ended. This fall, England attended five UGA games, starting with the Aug. 30 win over Clemson. UGA typically lists the tickets at $40 each or $80 per couple. England received four tickets for the Clemson game, records showed.

England said he didn’t notice anything different about this year’s lobbying efforts now that system schools don’t have to report.

“My wife and I went to a few more ball games this year, but it wasn’t because it was or wasn’t getting reported,” he said, “it was because we wanted to go to a few more games.”

England said his wife is a “rabid” Bulldog fan and enjoys going to games as much if not more than he does.

Game-day events make up a big part of system spending. UGA spent about $18,000 on its legislative day, when lawmakers and other top state officials mingle with top school officials. About three-fourths of the cost is for a reception the school held for state officials. It didn’t hurt that UGA beat Vanderbilt 44-17.

Georgia Tech reported spending about $7,400 on its “government leaders” day Sept. 13, which was more than usual because the opponent was Georgia Southern University. Tech barely got by Southern, and Tech’s top man at the statehouse, Dene Sheheane, said the game was popular with legislators.

“The gathering offered Georgia Tech an excellent opportunity to showcase our institution and provide elected leaders time on campus to visit with faculty, staff, and student leaders from two of Georgia’s public universities,” he said.

Besides the Sept. 13 event, Sheheane said his spending was down for 2014.

Georgia State hasn’t had much luck on the football field, but it reported spending about $1,000 on tickets, parking passes and a reception for the Panthers’ win over Abilene Christian. Among those attending were lawmakers, state utility regulators and Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens.

A range of lawmakers, from the prominent to backbenchers, got the attention from system lobbyists. Georgia Gwinnett College, for instance, spent much of its money on Gwinnett County lawmakers. The school took out Senate President David Shafer, R-Duluth, for a $120 dinner and then-Senate Majority Whip Cecil Staton, R-Macon, who now works for the University System, for a $115 dinner after the House had passed its version of the fiscal 2015 budget and as the Senate was working on its version.

The school has counted on Senate support for more than $130 million in special start-up money for the school since 2006. Gwinnett lawmakers, such as Shafer, Sen. Rene Unterman, R-Buford, and outgoing Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, have long worked to fight attempts to cut the extra funding, although it is currently being gradually phased out.

Overall, records received by the AJC showed spending for seven of the most active lobbying schools, and the University System Board of Regents, dropped from about $65,000 to about $48,0000 this year over 2013.

However, the figures for this year did not include, for the most part, money spent on staff, something lobbyists reported in 2013. Also, spending at Georgia Southern dropped by more than half because it didn’t sponsor its Wild Game Supper during the 2014 session, an event that cost the school about $7,500 in 2013.

“After assessing the expenses of the 2013 Wild Game Supper and the probability of increased costs associated with this event, Georgia Southern University, along with our co-hosts, decided to discontinue the Wild Game Supper,” said Russell Keen, director of governmental relations at Georgia Southern.

England said he doesn’t think colleges should have to register staffers and report what they spend.

“I honestly don’t think any governmental entity should have registered lobbyists,” England said. “They are there (at the statehouse) on the state’s business,. They are going to take care of their agency’s budget. I think it’s crazy that we required them to register as lobbyists.

“They are advocating for their cause, and their cause is their school.”

But critics of the change point out that part of that “cause” is increased taxpayer funding. And cutting them from the list of lobbyists reporting makes it more difficult to judge the impact of the lobby spending limits because they are traditionally among the biggest spenders.

“Absolutely the University System schools should report what they spend,” said William Perry of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “The fact that they are annually among the biggest spenders underscores the need for us to know where our institutions are spending money to influence legislation.”

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