Last February, Rep. Dale Van Vyven was everybody's best friend.
The Republican from Sharonville -- though barred from seeking re-election because of term limits -- packed a fund-raiser at the Inn Between with dozens of lobbyists and supporters. He netted almost $16,000 for the GOP in the Ohio House.
In September, Van Vyven had another fund-raiser at the same Downtown restaurant. Fewer than 20 people showed up, and he ended up with less than $800.
The difference? Timing.
The first fund-raiser came at a crucial moment in the legislative session -- just hours after the second hearing on a patient-protection plan by the Health, Retirement and Aging Committee, which Van Vyven chairs. The proceedings had to be broadcast into an adjoining room because of what one legislator called a "feeding frenzy" of attending lobbyists.
Many of those lobbyists were bent on eliminating a section of the proposal allowing patients to sue health insurers, and many of them, paying $200 each, attended the Van Vyven fund-raiser, according to campaign-finance records filed last week.
By the September fund-raiser, the bill had been signed by the governor -- minus the offending section -- and, to lobbyists, the 21-year House veteran looked like just another lame-duck legislator.
The Van Vyven example shows how lobbyists and legislators have achieved a symbiosis in Ohio.
Lobbyists need access to lawmakers, especially those who hold key positions; lawmakers need cash from lobbyists, especially those who provide big checks.
A campaign fund-raiser meets both needs.
Van Vyven, a State Farm Insurance agent, sees no problem with asking for money by night from some of the people who ask his committee for favors by day.
He rejected contentions that health-insurance interests dominated private meetings he conducted on House Bill 4. (In response to a Dispatch request for records of those gatherings, he said that none exist.)
"You've got to find that balance, and they (lobbyists) help in the process," he said.
Legislators know, however, that lobbyists help with other balances: those in their campaign coffers.
That lawmakers generally have their fund-raisers in Columbus instead of their home districts is no coincidence, nor is the fact that they schedule them for when the General Assembly is in session -- and the interest of lobbyists and other groups is at a peak.
Late-running House and Senate floor sessions often are adjourned at the cocktail hour to avoid conflicts with members' fund-raisers.
In 1996, perhaps the most heavily lobbied issue of the legislative session was a tort-reform bill making civil damages harder to collect.
When the proposal reached the House floor for a vote, the prime sponsor -- Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Columbus -- had a $100-a-person fund-raiser. That day, according to campaign-finance records, he raked in more than $25,000.
The bill, which had the strong backing of business interests, was passed by the legislature but struck down last year by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Beholden to whom?
The way Ohio legislators turn to lobbyists for money raises obvious concerns, said Peter Madsen, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"Who are the elected representatives truly serving when it comes time to take the vote?" he wondered. "Are they serving their campaign financiers and their lobbyist cohorts, or are they serving their people? I think that's a real question."
One lobbyist displayed nearly 400 invitations to legislative fund-raisers from the past two years -- and just from incumbents, not candidates seeking seats.
To attend every event, the lobbyist would have had to shell out almost $80,000, making only the minimum donations.
"I can't believe some of these (minority) Democrats asking you for $500," one lobbyist said. "And they can't even do anything for you. One of them called me up and asked for money. I said, 'And what do you want me to tell my client will be the benefit?' There was silence on the other end of the phone."
Legislators are asking for almost a dozen times as much from lobbyists as they did in the mid-'80s: A Dispatch compilation of invitations from 1985 shows that a lobbyist would have had to spend less than $7,000 to attend all legislative fund-raisers that year.
Naturally, any connection between campaign contributions and votes is denied.
The link was seldom more apparent, though, than in a Dec. 7 fund-raising solicitation by Andrew W. Herf, lobbyist for the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, on behalf of Rep. Amy Salerno, R-Columbus.
In a communique to 65 potential contributors -- virtually all of them fellow lobbyists -- he cited her effort to "protect our interests" by helping to sidetrack a telemarketing-reform bill written by Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery.
Salerno chairs the House Civil and Commercial Law Committee, where the bill has been on hold for several months.
Why? Business interests protested the proposed creation of a "Do not call" list for consumers who do not want to be bothered by telemarketers.
Herf urged the other lobbyists to "show her your appreciation for her hard work" by attending a $200-a-person fund-raiser at her Victorian Village home Dec. 9:
"Amy's continued work in this area and her ongoing support of our cause will mean even more in the future than it has already in the past."
Herf said last week that, while "the point of the letter was to get people to her fund-raiser," the solicitation was not at her request.
"I have never known her to relate a personal relationship to a way she votes," he said.
Salerno bottled up the bill, she said, not because of lobbyists' opposition but because of the effect on legitimate businesses -- as well as the teen-ager who calls on neighbors to earn money shoveling driveways.
"I didn't have any idea Andy did that," she said of the letter from Herf. "I think he was just trying to be a nice guy.''
Salerno's latest campaign report, filed last week, did not mention the December fund-raiser, as required by state law.
Her campaign treasurer, Susan Kyte, said the $3,500 raised would be reported in an amendment to the '99 report or in a pre-primary report this month.
Beyond the solicitation
On occasion, legislators don't shy from asking lobbyists for more than money.
Communiques obtained by The Dispatch show how one House member approached a lobbyist about giving a former staff member a job, while another letter details how a senator asked a lobbyist to chat with a son about employment opportunities.
Often the lobbyists not only give money themselves but also obligingly help legislators raise more.
The past two summers, lobbyist Robert Klaffky had a cookout beside the swimming pool of his $400,000 East Side home for the re-election campaign of Rep. David Goodman. Other lobbyists made up half of those identified as hosts on the most recent invitation to the $50-a-person fund-raiser.
The representative's father, lawyer N. Victor Goodman, is a longtime lobbyist. Even the chairman of the re-election committee, lawyer Charles "Rocky" Saxbe, is a registered lobbyist.
Goodman has worked with Klaffky on other campaigns, the Bexley Republican said, and Klaffky hosted the fund-raiser as a longtime friend, not a lobbyist.
Lobbyists are included on the host committee, he said, because they are respected in political circles and in the community.
"I think that lobbyists provide a very good resource to legislators," Goodman said. "It's up to legislators to balance what's being told to them and channel that into what's in the best interests of the people they represent."
Host committees make popular nesting grounds for lobbyists.
At a $150-a-person fund-raiser in June for state Treasurer Joseph T. Deters, eight of the 17 hosts were registered lobbyists. On a "Please join us" invitation to a June fund-raiser for Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery, lobbyists numbered two dozen of the 62 on the "us" list.
Fit for print
One of the most damaging blows to legislators' claims of independence lies in the very words they use when they go on bended knee seeking campaign cash.
Their correspondence indicates that legislative leaders keep close tabs on how much lobbyists contribute.
In September 1998, just two months before legislative elections, Senate President Richard H. Finan, R-Cincinnati, solicited $100,000 from lobbyists and others. His letters were customized to note the total that each lobbyist had already given and point out that Ohio law allows each to give as much as $2,500 to an individual candidate.
"I am counting on your full support," Finan wrote.
The same month, the Finan-controlled Republican Senate Campaign Committee had what he called a "lobby event" at the Graystone Winery in Columbus to raise $300,000. Again noting how much each had contributed, Finan urged lobbyists to "max out" and provide the full $5,000 allowed by law to a legislative campaign committee.
Lobbyists who had already "maxed out" earlier in the year got complimentary invitations to all GOP Senate fund-raisers for the rest of '98.
In all, some $3 million was raised that year to help Republicans retain their Senate majority.
Finan is hitting up some of the same people for cash this year: In a December letter, he told lobbyists, "Your support is essential to us if we are to maintain our majority into the next millennium."
A considerate lobbyist has plenty of other ways, of course, to help a needy legislator.
When he served as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Finan solicited dollars around the country for the Ohio President's Fund.
The stash paid for "special events" during his term as president of the organization -- including a bash in Philadelphia when he took office and another in Las Vegas when he stepped down.
The money he gathered, unlike campaign cash, was not subject to any limits or reporting requirements.
When asked what lobbyists receive in return for their largess, Finan turned indignant.
"They get nothing," he said. "Do they want to be friends with Dick Finan? Sure they do. But to say 'Do they want Dick Finan to do something legislatively for them?' you're wrong. They better never ask.
"If you call me from the blood bank and say, 'I want to come over and talk to you about a bill,' they put you on my agenda. Mary Jo (his secretary) will put you on the schedule."
In an apparent attempt to bolster the size of campaign contributions, legislators often stress their importance when they ask for money from lobbyists.
A solicitation for Rep. J. Donald Mottley, R-West Carrollton, emphasized his position as "chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of JCARR," a key rules-making panel.
Sometimes a legislator adds a personal touch to a plea.
A handwritten note from Rep. Dan Metelsky, D-Lorain, on an invitation to a lobbyist: "Thanks for looking out for me and for all your valuable advice!"
In asking a lobbyist to make a campaign contribution "above and beyond the norm," Rep. Robert L. Corbin, R-Centerville, wrote: "I have always greatly appreciated the generous support you and other lobbyists have given me, and I don't believe I ever really pressured you to give."
In a thank-you letter two months later: "Because of the great support of friends like you, I'll have the funds to wage a good race."
After the November 1996 election, House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg, told a lobbyist in an apparent form letter celebrating the addition of four seats to the GOP majority: "Our victory is your victory."
The sentence was underlined in blue.
Dispatch Statehouse Reporter Lee Leonard contributed to this story.
Caption: (1) Mike Munden / Dispatch
State Rep. Dale Van Vyven, R-Sharonville: "You've got to find that balance, and they (lobbyists) help in the process."
(2) Mike Munden/Dispatch
Senate President Richard Finan counts on lobbyists "full support."