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Lobbyists Wine and Dine Florida Lawmakers
The Palm Beach Post
Florida legislators, everyone always knew, ate and drank pretty well -- thanks to the Capitol lobbying corps.
Despite rule changes in recent years attempting to limit the largess, the free food and booze from paid lobbyists to elected lawmakers had continued apace. Everybody knew it.
What seemingly no one knew was exactly how much the 1,900 lobbyists were paying to wine and dine the 40 senators and 120 House members. Who were the biggest spenders? Who were the biggest recipients? And on whose behalf was all this happening?
These are the questions The Palm Beach Post set out to answer this spring as part of its preview of the upcoming legislative session. To find out, we built a database from thousands of lobbyist registration records, nearly 200 public records requests and repeated mailings of a questionnaire to every Florida legislator.
The result: a three-part series (posted at http://www.gopbi.com/specialedition/lobbyists/#stories) that found lobbyists were spending nearly $1 million on food and drink during the two-month session; that laws passed to limit the activities were so loosely drawn as to leave virtually no public record regarding who was giving what to whom; and that lawmakers are so sensitive about their gift-taking that they used lawyers on the public payroll to justify not disclosing their receipts.
While many of Florida's public records are available on the Internet, or at least in some electronic format, the expense records of legislative lobbyists are not. The Legislature sets its own rules regarding what is easily available and what is not. And expense records (form your own motive as to why...) are most certainly not.
Every lobbyist must at the end of session file a report summarizing what he or she has spent on behalf of each client, broken down by category (meals, entertainment, travel, etc.). Although this material is entered into the Joint Legislative Management Committee's mainframe, we were told it could not and would not be transferred onto a portable format or transmitted to us electronically.
The best we could get was a hard-copy printout. After some back-and-forth discussions, we decided to accept this, then spent our spare time over the next few months re-entering the data from several thousand lobbyist-client combinations into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and thence an Access database in our Tallahassee bureau.
We quickly learned the limitations of what we had. Expense information from lobbyists was collected, but only in aggregate. For example, we could learn that Lobbyist X had purchased Y dollars worth of meals on behalf of client Z during the session, but we could not find out if that was one meal for 120 legislators or 10 meals for 12. Worse, names of legislators receiving gifts were required to be reported only if any individual gift exceeded $25.
In other words, a lawmaker could accept hundreds of meals from a particular lobbyist worth tens of thousands of dollars. But if no single meal cost more than $25, no one other than the lobbyist and legislator need ever know.
To try to fill in this gap, we decided to go to the horse's mouth.
Four separate times between December and February, The Post faxed questionnaires asking each lawmaker to detail how many meals and drinks he had received during the 1997 session, their approximate worth, and from which lobbyists they received them. We knew the public records law didn't cover this, and didn't really know how legislators would respond. Quickly, we learned they responded with panic.
Many of Florida's 40 senators cited Senate rules that now prohibit meals and drinks at private dinners (meals at receptions, however, are deemed “OK”). The House, which merely has the $25 limit, instead went to its in-house legal counsel to provide justifications for not answering. When we learned of this from a maverick House member within the Republican leadership, we immediately wrote records requests for the correspondence between the Majority Office and the General Counsel.
This, frankly, made for a good story, although not the one we'd originally planned: that House members, while publicly downplaying their meals and drink from lobbyists, privately were so afraid of the possible political consequences that they ran to their lawyers for help.
The letters and memos between the House and its legal staff were the basis for the series' third part.
The first day's story for the series also came from an unexpected finding. During our analysis of the lobbying data, we noticed that many of the clients were cities, counties, school districts and other public entities.
We decided to quantify this. We went through the list of clients and picked out 160 that operated with tax money. To those we faxed and mailed public records requests asking for their contracts with their private sector lobbyists (we did not count, for example, full-time employees of a water district whose sole job it is to lobby the Legislature, although arguable we might have included their salaries, as well).
Nearly 120 entities responded, and we created another spreadsheet for this data. Quickly we realized the nugget that served as the lead for our first-day story: that Florida taxpayers spend more to lobby their 160 legislators than on their total salaries.
Perhaps not surprisingly, our series has not had much of an effect on Florida politics. Papers around the state carried all or part of the series via the AP, good-government groups like Common Cause praised it and called for reforms, and some legislators even used it as fodder for debate. In terms of new laws or rules: nothing, at least so far.
That could change with the upcoming elections this autumn. One sidebar to the series showed how South Florida, black and Cuban-American legislators take disproportionate shares of the over-$25 gifts that lobbyists are required to report in detail. Another discussed how five legislators had asked for Walt Disney World tickets, in seeming violation of a state law against soliciting gifts (as of June 8, two of the five were cleared by the state's Commission on Ethics). Another looked at a weekly, for-legislators-only seafood buffet at a Tallahassee restaurant that provides more than $45 of food and drink at a $24.99 price tag (paid for by lobbyists).
At least one of the legislators featured in the series has drawn an opponent in November (she was unopposed two years ago). Others may as well in the remaining month before the qualifying deadline for fall elections.
Shirish Date can be reached at (850)224-1368 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org