Behavior Has Changed But Within Limits

Gifts per legislator. Source: Virginia Public Access Project

There are plenty of complaints these days that the legislative process is unduly influenced by money, but when the spotlight shines or a major scandal erupts, behavior can change. For example, Virginia legislators simply do not want to report that they have received gifts or attended lobbyist dinners, on public records which are available to their voters, the media and potential opponents.

How few actually do show up on 2018 reports is well-illustrated in the graphic above recently posted on the Virginia Public Access Project (click here for interactive features). Readers of Bacon’s Rebellion are probably already following VPAP as well, but if not this is worth a look.

Except for one very popular event, the annual Agribusiness Council Dinner, 91 of Virginia’s 140 legislators would have reported no gifts or meals at all. In many rural districts the political cost of skipping the Ag Dinner and not being seen by constituents attending would also be high. Yet 64 legislators missed that one, too, and avoided having to explain that $69.48 repast.

Several legislative offices have signs out front expressing a policy against accepting any gifts, even innocuous gifts such as a ball point pen or a box of candy or a calendar. That is growing but is not universal. It is the aversion to reporting gifts or entertainment that is becoming more widespread.

That report makes one think the place has really changed since the Bob McDonnell case, right? Not so fast. First note the data covers the period of the regular General Assembly session, from January 1 to Sine Die in March, not the whole year. As you can see with the full 2017 data here the totals tend to grow through the year, especially with paid trips to summer conferences. But there is no dispute that the number and value of reported gifts and meals is shrinking. For example look at the same report for 2012.

Second, remember that gifts or entertainment expenses of $50 or less do not trigger a reporting requirement. Lobbyists or organizations are keeping a closer eye on the cost of items, but $50 can still pay for some very nice gifts or meals.

Does it at least mean the days of the big restaurant dinners are over? Oh my no – and here is how they do it. It can be tracked on VPAP as well but it takes research. The $50 reporting trigger is interpreted to mean $50 per person per lobbying principal (client) paying the bill. If two clients for the same firm split the tab the trigger is $100 per person, and if three – well, you get the drift.

To confirm this is still the practice I easily found an example, but will not provide the details because I did not reach out to the major lobbying firm involved. I noted that one client reported a dinner on January 25, 2017 with 12 persons and a bill of $149 – well below the cost that would require naming the legislators. But by clicking down its full client list I found four more clients reporting a dinner for 12 at $149 on the same date.

Assuming the firm didn’t host five different dinners that night, the real bill was $745 for 12 people, or $62 per person.  That’s hardly lavish, but the intent to disclose the names of attendees has apparently been thwarted. They could stay on the list of those with no reportable gifts for 2017.

As VPAP helpfully explains: “Disclosure forms do not require clients to state clearly the average cost per person. Calculating the average cost per person may not be as simple as dividing the total cost by the number of people attending. Because the forms and instructions are unclear, the amount listed can represent either the total cost of the event, the amount spent on only the officials who attended or the average cost per person.”

It is silly and arbitrary to assume that somebody who accepts a $51 dinner has been compromised while somebody who skips dessert or drinks and spends $40 has not. Frankly neither has been compromised in my book. The real purpose of these dinners is to get the undivided attention of the legislators for a while – admittedly an advantage for that lobbyist and an edge on the competition. That is reason enough they should be fully reported.

If the costs of a dinner can be shared among multiple clients then the costs of other forms of entertainment or gifts could also be divided, seeking to keep the cost below $50 per client per recipient and keeping the recipient(s) off reports. I have not scoured the records to see if that happens, but nobody should have to.  The General Assembly needs to end this particular game.

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18 responses to “Behavior Has Changed But Within Limits

  1. I’m unfortunately and sadly convinced that rules are mere obstructions to be worked around through other means.

    One of the places where there might be a better bite is what is known as a Statement of Economic Interests which I’m sure Steve is very familiar. It’s an opportunity to focus on the public official – elected or appointed in terms of what their range of economic interests are – and what the sources are.

    I really don’t have a problem with gratis meals and desk doodads… but I think also that people who believe in VPAP as one stop disclosure – also probably believe in the tooth fairy.

    I would also venture to say the good folks at VPAP could write a book on the various and sundry ways to NOT report via VPAP.

    The thing is – this is not some recent shocking revelation at all.. This country (most countries) have a very long and very wide history of corruption, bribery and general financial skulduggery that has always influenced those who make laws.

    Regulators – for some reason – don’t seem to be as susceptible so once lawmakers realize the regulators are actually doing their job – they vote to get/neuter them… e.g. the EPA, and the VSCC to name two.

  2. It seems to me that the new sleight of hand is for legislators to take lobbyists to dinner. Let’s say I’m a politician. You give me a big campaign contribution. I use pretty big chunks of that money to take you and other unnamed people out to dinner at Bookbinders and run up $1,500 tabs.

    Here’s a glance at a very small percentage of Tommy Norment’s expenditures:

    https://www.vpap.org/candidates/5678/service/22/?start_year=all&end_year=all

    Norment’s opponents have never gotten to 40% of the vote but he needs a $30,000 fundraiser / golf tournament / clambake every year (even the 3 out of 4 years when he’s not running).

    And his top donors …

    Virginia Bankers Association
    Virginia Association of Realtors
    Virginia Beer Wholesalers
    Virginia Trial Lawyers Association
    Dominion Energy
    Altria
    Verizon

    The usual “Who’s who” of crony capitalists.

    I wonder how many of the senator’s donors end up at the annual golf tournament & clambake each year?

    I guess it doesn’t qualify as a gift because it’s a fundraising expense. Really. No, really.

  3. DJ, the annual Norment event at Ford’s Colony fills the golf course and the banquet hall, and of course the lobbyists who hang around Senate Finance or Commerce and Labor with their begging bowls all attend. It is one of the events I was sorry to miss this year. Yes, those are campaign dollars and thus the donations are fully reported. In truth face time with the host is not much easier to get there than in a committee room.

    Golf tournaments are perfect occasions to donate in-kind items like golf balls and things for the goodie bags. Are those gifts? No, they count as campaign contributions and they are reported.

    But you are on to something and there are occasions when a large enough campaign contribution earns you one or more seats at a more intimate dinner with a small group of legislators, usually leadership. Since the hosts are paying (with the guest’s dollars of course) there is no required report that on such and such a date so and so dined at this particular fine Richmond eatery. Should there be? Easy to require…..

  4. It’s easy. The folks subject to the rules -carefully check the rules then do the “work arounds”. The ethics laws are sieves… specially designed to show to the gullible while at the same time providing ample ways to meet the letter of the law but not the spirit.

  5. I was looking at Steve’s statement of economic interests – which is a total bust in terms of actually seeing it.

    The Ethics Website is designed to make it almost impossible to get the desired info.

    • I haven’t filed one of those since I was on SCHEV, and my forms are very boring. You should be able to find lobbyist disclosure forms on VPAP but I’ve already said I cannot discuss details about my clients. 🙂

  6. Steve – do you know how to navigate the Ethics website to get the disclosure data for anyone?

    I had no luck… it appears the website purposely is hard to use and intends to frustrate. Why should we have to go to VPAP in the first place if there is an Ethics website that taxpayers are paying money to maintain?

    The Ethics website functionality says it ALL with respect to the VA GA commitment to “disclosure” and makes a mockery of Jim claiming that anything goes – as long as it is disclosed.

  7. I just looked up my own lobbyist disclosure reports on that page with no difficulty. I do not have a personal financial disclosure form on that database because it was set up in 2016, and I was already off SCHEV at that point (no second term for such a troublesome sort). But I tested it with a couple of legislator names and their reports appeared. Seems to work well. Perhaps it is what my IT staff used to call an I-D-10-T problem.. Eye Dee Ten T, get it? 🙂

    ethics.dls.virginia.gov – that’s where you were? Public information link?

  8. Did you actually download and look at the data?

    I could navigate through the front-end menus.. and easily found Haner but when I download the info.. there are only headers on the excel file… no data..

  9. http://ethicssearch.dls.virginia.gov/

    Larry, I don’t know that they’ve set it up for downloads. If you go to the website above and type in the names of lobbyists or legislators and select a year then you get a list of reports for that year, which you can read and I assume print. If that is not what you want send them an email and you will find them helpful. You were asserting this website was a sham and that was unfair – for basic disclosure it works and we all use it from time to time.

    For VPAP to then compile the data I assume there is a way to download it, but perhaps those folks are doing key entry form by form. Or perhaps to get it in a database format you have to ask.

    At the end of this year’s reporting cycle (June 30) I plan to explore the lobbyist disclosure process in a bit more detail but when I do I want to work with 2018 reports which are still trickling in.

    • Steve,

      I had the idea brooched to the VPAP database guy to put votes with the campaign donations. The head guy wrote me back, loved the idea, but didn’t have the manpower. I said I’d do it. I’m working on a database like that.

      He never responded.

  10. Steve – are you supposed to be able to look up General Assembly members and local Boards of Supervisors on this database?

    I put in Chap Peterson – got nothing… put in the name of one of the county supervisors.. got nothing…

    I did succeed for yours but just Registrations… not SOEI – not for any year… is that right?

  11. So Steve – do you know how I’d be able to look at the SOEI for a given General Assembly guy/gal ? How about a local BOS?

  12. After some discussion with Steve, I was able to get SOME Statements of Economic Interests.. like for Kirkland Cox and Mark Cole of the 88th HD but not for Chap Peterson nor members of our local BOS.

    there is no explanation as to why the other SOEI are not there or where they might be found instead.

  13. Senator J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen will pop up it you search on Chapman Petersen. If not on this database, I suspect members of any local government may be filing with their own clerks of court or some other local depository.

  14. Steve Haner and Jim Bacon:

    I have had FOIA problems digging into Chesapeake City Council stuff. The more I dig, the more I get issues like what others have complained about: threats, 1st amendment rights blocked, high FOIA fees, and a lot of this is due to putting the VPAP stuff together with voting records of these people, asking for phone/appointment records (that was the interesting one).

    Any thoughts on doing follow up articles that detail patterns of blocking, fake accounts & smear campaigns that happen to independent running candidates, planning commission candidates for office who talk badly on people (behind their back, at least it was in writing). It seems the checks for phone numbers caused a ton of issues. While we are PAYING for the city council members in Chesapeake, NONE are keeping appointment schedules and at least one keeps a private email server. Not including unanswered FOIA’s (for over 60 days now) and lawyers trying to muscle in?

  15. If I keep up this new effort I’m sure I’ll look at that. I have seen that world from both sides. I was a reporter, and then did oppo research for campaigns. I spent four years reviewing, responding to or ducking all the FOIA requests for the Office of Attorney General. It culminated of course in the campaign for Governor which produced a flood of requests. I was one of the “political guys” so all of those were totally answered through me. Over those years there were many ridiculous requests or obvious fishing expeditions that got the fast shuffle in response, but the person doing the digging for the Warner camp had worked there before me and asked good questions! I’m sure all of your requests fit that final category and not the first two.

    As to the bad behavior in the world of government and politics, VN, do you think it is any different a) at the state capitol or b) in plenty of workplaces? My grandkids are growing up and I dread going back to youth sporting events to see all that infantile behavior (from the parents!)

    • Heck no! LOL.

      However I think that people who have less power/money issues put in office would do better for the city. They would appear to make decisions more based on research and fact rather than some developer paying them.

      I think sending a warning that this behavior isn’t tolerated will be helpful. It is not right that a councilmember file charges to get someone to lose their job the day they declare to run for a council seat. That is way crossing the line.

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