Lawmakers Write Loopholes for Themselves - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Capitol Hill Corruption

Lawmakers Write Loopholes for Themselves

(Story created: 2/11/03)

If you're an average state worker, it may be illegal for you to take even the tiniest gift from a company that sells any product to the state.

But up on Capitol Hill, a dinner in the city's most expensive restaurants is just one of the Perks of Power for those who write the laws.

Even the prime sponsor of ethics reform legislation passed eight years ago admits the lobbyists who crowd the hallways of Capitol Hill have found lots of loopholes.

"The wining and dining still pretty much goes on?" asks NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

"Sure, it does," replies Sen. Jerry Cooper, D-Morrison.

Talk radio's Steve Gill is more blunt.

"The same guys that are writing the laws are the same ones that are living under the laws that they have written with the built-in loopholes," Gill says.

Under the ethics law, wining and dining would be allowed only if a lobbyist invited a full committee -- which sounds like a lot of people.

Cooper says that's been interpreted by state lawyers to include a subcommittee.

" A subcommittee, you know, in the Senate is just three people."

And the key word, regulators say, is "invite," not "attend."

"It could be one person, if that is the only one that showed up," explains Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state Registry of Election Finance, the state's ethics board.

That has led to some creative invitations, according to Dick Williams of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

"The way it's evolved now, it could be a last-minute phone call."

And what about expensive gifts like Super Bowl tickets? Listen to what state Sen. John Ford, D-Memphis, tells a group in a Capitol Hill bar.

"So how do you get all these tickets?" someone asks.

"He knows the right people," explains a nearby lobbyist.

"No, different times -- Coca-Cola most of the time," Ford responds.

Coca-Cola, however, doesn't have a lobbyist, although there is a lobbyist for the Soft Drink Association. Under the state's ethics law, it's just the lobbying association that's prohibited from providing certain gifts.

"But any individual member of that association, who is clearly affiliated with that association can do that," Dick Williams explains.

"Trips -- anything?" asks Phil Williams.

"Yeah, right -- big fancy trips or whatever."

In fact, some government contractors -- like the highway engineers who took former Gov. Don Sundquist and Transportation Commissioner Bruce Saltsman golfing -- just don't hire outside lobbyists.

They handle all the schmoozing themselves.

"So they can give trips, dinners, anything?" Phil Williams asks the Registry's Drew Rawlins.

"Under the lobbying law, yes, they would not be restricted from giving gifts or anything else."

Sen. Cooper says it was all lawmakers could agree upon at the time, although he says it may be time to revisit the issue.

But critics say it's a classic case of legislators watching out for themselves.

Says Steve Gill, "We've got so many ways for you to be just inside the line of what's legal and still be way outside the line of what's right for the people of Tennessee."

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