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.