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Following the Money in a State Legislature
By Darrel Rowland

Want to read another war story involving multi-variable regression analyses -- and how with weeks of intense study and several graduate degrees even you might be able to climb this learning curve?

Then look elsewhere.

Want to hear how you can use that most basic of CAR animals, Microsoft Excel, in an almost embarrassingly simple way to come up with a fun story that readers will like?

Then read on.

But first a warning label: You're going to have to cozy up to a lobbyist.

For the past quarter century, journalists have developed more and more sophisticated methods of adhering to the adage of Deep Throat to Bob Woodward: Follow the money.

However, we hardly ever swim upstream to find out how the money started flowing in the first place.

For instance, to obtain that mother's milk known as campaign contributions, politicians use a highly specialized technique.

They ask.

Since requests for money and invitations to fund-raisers aren't public record, journalists often ignore them, but we shouldn't.

Campaign fund-raisers provide the nexus for two very fundamental needs: Lobbyists who need access to politicians, and politicians who need the money lobbyists can provide.

We've all read cries of indignation from politicians when a journalist dares to suggest a connection between their actions and campaign contributions.

Well, the next time you publish those statements, run them alongside quotes from candidates going on bended knee to lobbyists begging for money.

Here are a few of the fun nuggets on Ohio candidates we mined from this seldom-explored lode:
  • "Thanks for looking out for me and all your valuable advice," said a handwritten note from a Democratic lawmaker to the lobbyist.
  • A Republican representative asked the lobbyist to give "above and beyond the norm," adding: "I have always greatly appreciated the generous support you and other lobbyists have given me."
  • Powerful House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, a Republican from suburban Columbus, assured lobbyists in a thank you letter after the GOP retained its majority that "our victory is your victory." The sentence was underlined with a blue felt-tip pen.
  • Ohio Senate President Richard H. Finan, a Republican from Cincinnati, turned to lobbyists to raise $300,000 less than two months before the crucial 1998 Senate campaigns. Each lobbyist's letter was customized to note how much he or she had already contributed -- and how much more they could give before hitting the $5,000 maximum allowed to legislative caucuses in Ohio.
How did we get these seldom-seen fund-raiser invitations? That's where it pays to have good friends in low places. We found a lobbyist who keeps a meticulous file of every fund-raising invitation sent out by legislators.

This is where we turned to the computer.

We already knew that Ohio's 132 legislators, along with each party's legislative caucuses, were asking for more money. Using the lobbyist's files, we compiled information from nearly 400 invitations to lawmakers' fund-raisers from the previous two years -- the length of Ohio's legislative session.

We created a basic spreadsheet with Excel (we have the Microsoft Office 95 package). The first two columns were legislators' names (last name in column A, first name in column B). Then we entered each lawmaker's political party, the location of the fund-raiser, the date, and the minimum contribution requested.

Once the spreadsheet was set up, it was easy to sum the dollar amounts.

The result: it would cost the lobbyist almost $80,000 to attend every legislative fund-raiser. And that's not counting "opportunities" such as sponsoring a hole at a legislator's golf tournament.

Since this was a small spreadsheet -- a list of about 400 fund-raisers with six rows of data apiece -- it was easy to conduct a variety of sorts to see if there was anything else hiding in the data.

By sorting the dates of the fund-raisers, and comparing those dates with the state legislative calendar, we were able to confirm a longtime suspicion that legislators schedule their money events during the weeks the legislature is in session. In addition, the bulk of the fund-raisers are in Columbus (most at some watering hole within a block of two of the Statehouse), not back in the legislator's district.

The reason is the same Willie Sutton reportedly gave when asked why he robbed banks: That's where the money is.

But there was yet another aspect to the timing of legislators' fund-raisers.

Several months before conducting our little CAR analysis, I had covered a committee hearing on Ohio's version of a patients bill of rights. Even though I arrived on time, there were no seats left because of what one legislator dubbed a "feeding frenzy" of lobbyists.

Monitoring the hearing from an adjoining room that had an audio feed, it quickly became apparent most of the lobbyists were taking shots at a provision giving consumers the right to sue their health insurer for faulty coverage decisions.

During ensuing weeks, committee Chairman Dale N. Van Vyven, a Republican from suburban Cincinnati, held a series of private meetings with lobbyists on the proposal. In the end, the right-to-sue provision of the bill -- which initially had 57 co-sponsors in a 99-member House -- was stripped. To the dismay of many consumer groups and patients who had fought their managed care providers, the legislature substituted an untested independent appeals process.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering came to mind when I noticed the date of a Van Vyven fund-raiser: Feb. 17. Checking our files revealed the second hearing on the patient protection plan was the same date. Van Vyven was trolling for dollars by night with lobbyists who a few hours before had been seeking favors from his committee.

Even though Van Vyven was barred from seeking re-election by Ohio's version of term limits, he still took in more than $16,000 that he gave to fellow Republicans.

Any question the timing of the fund-raiser was connected to the bill?

Well, Van Vyven had another fund-raiser at the same downtown restaurant about seven months later, after the patient-protection plan had been signed into law without the offending right-to-sue clause. Van Vyven's haul this time? Less than $800.

We found other examples where key legislative developments coincided with legislators' fund-raisers. For example, the day a controversial bill to limit lawsuits came to the House floor for a vote, chief sponsor Rep. Pat Tiberi of Columbus raked in more than $25,000 from a fund-raiser -- virtually all from proponents of the tort reform.

Give you any story ideas for your state capital?

The story about legislative fund-raisers was part of three-day series on the growing influence of lobbyists in Ohio government. The entire series can be accessed through The Columbus Dispatch's web site: www.dispatch.com. Click on "Special Reports."

Darrel Rowland is public affairs editor for The Columbus Dispatch.