Lawmakers Enjoy Wining and Dining -- and More - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Lawmakers Enjoy Wining and Dining -- and More

(Story created: 2/10/03)

Eight years ago, Tennessee lawmakers passed a compromise... and called it ethics reform.

Talk radio's Steve Gill remembers the debate -- and the promise made.

"That would make them so pristine, so pure that not even a cup of coffee could put them at risk of being purchased by a lobbyist," Gill recalls.

Yet, despite taxpayers' demand for change -- which ushered in a new governor and 27 new legislators -- a lot remains the same.

In the dark shadows of Nashville's expensive restaurants and bars, our hidden cameras discovered special interests still trying to buy favor with your lawmakers.

Inside a Capitol Hill bar, an insurance industry lobbyist tell us he's hanging out to buy drinks for lawmakers.

And inside Valentinos, an elegant West End restaurant, powerful Senate chairman Jerry Cooper toasts a former state senator turned lobbyist... who obliges by picking up the tab.

"I was with Bill Peeler and a gentleman from the 3M Company," the Morrison Democrat acknowledges.

Cooper says it was just a get-together of friends.

"Do you see anything wrong with that?" asks NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

"You know," Cooper replies, "we didn't discuss any 3M business. Sen. Peeler, of course, a retired senator -- we're friends."

Gill says everybody always says they're friends.

"But when you look at Capitol Hill, it's always a matter of 'bidness,' as they might say," the talk radio host argues. "There's never an out-to-lunch sign. There's never an off-duty sign."

It's also a world in which another powerful Senate chairman, John Ford, doesn't hesitate to drop a few hints about Super Bowl tickets with his lobbyist friends.

"I need four tickets," Ford tells them. "I'll take two, but I need four."

Later, Ford confides to an undercover NewsChannel 5 producer: "I always get tickets."

"My friends don't take me to the Super Bowl," the producer tells Ford.

"These really are not friends," he replies. "These are corporate people, like corporate sponsors."

Gill says, "I think at some point they believe that they are just kind of owed this, that these corporate entities owe it to them as part of the perks of their job."

And inside the upscale Mario's restaurant, members of the House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's inner circle enjoy fine Italian food, served up by the chief lobbyist for Golden Rule Insurance Co.

"Sherry Hopkins ... is our host, our friend," says another lobbyist in introducing her.

And Hopkins makes clear: her goodwill has its price:

"Betty makes sure that we know who supports us, and that's who we take care of," Hopkins says. "As long as we receive support from you, you will definitely receive support from us."

The assembled lawmakers respond with applause.

"I don't think there's any secret," Gill observes, "that when you look at this tape that it makes it pretty clear that if you want to be our friend, you'll do things that our friends do -- which is, vote the way we want you to."

After Hopkins' speech, House Speaker Pro Tempore Lois Deberry, D-Memphis, announces plans for a getaway on the upcoming Super Bowl weekend.

"Anybody interested in going to the Super Bowl with us -- and Vegas -- let us know by tomorrow."

Later, she adds: "Sherry is our host, and we are hoping the Titans win the Super Bowl and we'll be in Vegas and we'll be having a great time."

In fact, several lawmakers did make the trek to Vegas, but both they and the lobbyists insist Golden Rule did not host or pay for anything.

"They could do that no way. You know better than that," Deberry tells Phil Williams.

"Well, I'm going based on what you said."

"Yeah, but you took it out of perspective."

In a written statement, Golden Rule said:

"Golden Rule is a recognized leader in our industry, so it's natural that legislators seek our insight and expertise. We respect Tennessee law designed to ensure the integrity of the lawmaking process and always act in compliance with its provisions."

As for the cozy dinner provided by Hopkins and the other insurance lobbyists, Deberry insists it was just friends.

"Did she pay for it at Marios?" Deberry asks.

"Did you pay for it?" Williams replies.

"I probably didn't eat... I'm not going to get into that."

And what about Senator Ford's Super Bowl tickets?

"You don't want to talk to me," he told Williams.

Suddenly, his perks of power weren't something he wanted to discuss.

"Nobody gave me free Super Bowl tickets," Ford says, walking away from Williams.

"Have you accepted them in the past?"

"It's none of your business."

"It's none of my business?"

Ford then entered his office and slammed the door.

Experts say everything we saw may be perfectly legal. That's because of all the loopholes that the lawmakers put in the ethics law for themselves.

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