By Claire Haws and Rudolph Bell
ANNAPOLIS – Lobbyists spent nearly $400,000 during the 1995 General Assembly session wining and dining groups of state lawmakers, according to a computer analysis of State Ethics Commission records.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce shelled out more than $18,500 for a single shindig at a fancy hotel. Days later, the Maryland Bankers Association spent close to $19,000 for a similar event.
Receptions and banquets where lobbyists rub shoulders with groups of lawmakers – called “special events” under the state’s ethics law – are common fare in Maryland’s capital during the annual political season. Lobbyists say they hold them to build goodwill and meet new lawmakers.
The events became an issue this year after Sen. Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, introduced a bill to excuse lawmakers from reporting their attendance at lobbyist functions when the guest list includes the full Legislature, all members of a committee or an entire delegation.
Currently, lawmakers must report attending any special event where they receive more than $25 in food or other amenities.
The Senate passed the Collins measure, but on Friday, the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee killed it.
Collins said he and Miller had introduced the bill because some lawmakers were confused about the $25 limit, and didn’t want to be accused of wrongdoing if they made a mistake.
“We just thought it would be a good way to clarify the issue,” Collins said, adding that the law was designed to monitor one-on-one relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers and not gatherings where the two mingle in groups.
He said he was satisfied with the House committe’s action. “If the confusion persists,” Collins added, “we’ll introduce the bill again.”
Under the proposed change, special events would still have shown up on reports that lobbyists file semi-annually with the ethics commission. Those reports, however, don’t tell which lawmakers attend which events.
And that bothered Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, the state chapter of the national public- interest lobby.
“It appears the members of the Legislature want to party with impunity,” Povich said after the Senate passed the measure. “They want to go to these events and not be held accountable for attending them.”
Povich praised the House committee for killing the bill. “They voted to protect the public interest,” she said.
The Capital News Service computer analysis sheds light on the scope and nature of the lobbying practice. It examined all special events for the most recent reporting period that included a legislative session – Nov. 1, 1994, to April 30, 1995. (The reporting deadline for the 1996 session is May 31.)
Lobbyists reported 128 special events costing a total of $399,610. Almost all were receptions or banquets at a handful of upscale hotels, inns and restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the Statehouse.
The entire General Assembly was invited to at least half of the events. Lobbyists did not report their guests in 10 cases.
Health care interests – including drug companies, doctors’ groups and mental health organizations – spent the most for special events, shelling out $93,462.
The next biggest spenders were transportation interests ($30,937), insurance ($24,049), banking ($21,638), business ($18,582), public utilities ($17,430) and real estate ($16,755).
Twenty-seven special events, or 21 percent, were hosted or co-hosted by out-of-state interests. Among them were waste disposal firm Browning Ferris Industries of Houston, Texas, and tobacco giant Philip Morris USA and liquor company Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, both headquartered in New York, N.Y.
The most expensive gatherings were those of the Maryland Bankers Association and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. The next most expensive was hosted by the Mental Health Association of Maryland and cost $17,598. (For details, see accompanying chart.)
The biggest beneficiary was Loews Annapolis Hotel on West Street, which collected $154,459 hosting 28 events. Next was Historic Inns of Annapolis, a group of four inns all a stone’s throw from the Statehouse, which took in $107,368 from 35 events.
Other popular sites included Harry Browne’s restaurant on State Circle (seven events) and the Annapolis Marriott Waterfront hotel at the city dock (six events).
Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery, attends as many as four receptions a night during the session, and sees the reporting requirement as burdensome and unnecessary. “Common Cause has made all lobbying look like it was evil, and it’s not,” Forehand said.
Del. Clay Opara, D-Baltimore, who is serving in his first legislative session, said he understood public concern about lobbyists wielding undue influence over lawmakers.
“But once I got down here I realized the rituals are innocuous in nature,” he added. Special events are vital for coalition-building, an important aspect of lawmaking, he said. “It allows people to grab hands and work better together.”
Opara, a member of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee, voted in favor of the Collins-Miller bill on Friday.
Lobbyist Champe McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, believes that dropping the reporting requirement would have been a reasonable move.
“In a mass setting there’s no undue influence because each person can have maybe three minutes with the legislator,” McCulloch said.
Wayne Kirwan, vice president of the bankers association, said his group did not hold receptions every year, but did so in 1995 “because you had substantial turnover in the Legislature.”
The event coincided with an all-day conference of bank CEOs and board members, he added, giving them opportunities “to meet their legislators and their staff.”
Kirwan questioned the merits of reporting requirements. “I think there comes a point where [they] are burdensome for both sides of the equation, the lobbyists and the Legislature,” he said. “You wonder if the reports that are generated are worth the effort. I mean, is Common Cause going to be upset because somebody ate a canope at a legislative reception?”
But Povich said lobbyists host the events because they hope to influence legislation. For that reason, she said, “It’s in the public interest to know who is spending what on whom.” -30-