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Lobbying laws often confuse donors
Rules are considered a political nuisance or a toothless tiger

Think Utah's lobbying reporting laws don't apply to you? You might want to think again.

That lobbyist you hired to protect your interests at the Utah Legislature could put you on the hook to report expensive freebies you gave to a top state official.That's according to disclosure laws clearly stating that "principals" -- the legal label for individuals and companies that hire lobbyists -- must report the gifts and benefits valued at more than $50 that they gave to lawmakers and top state executives in any quarter of a year.

Sounds simple enough, if you are aware of it. And that's part of the problem state officials have found: Not all so-called principals appear to know that they must report the event tickets, airline upgrades or other "benefits" they give to Gov. Mike Leavitt or lawmakers.

Or, if they reported those benefits, they filed the reports on different forms. Instead of filling out the lobbyist disclosure form, they filed a political action committee or business campaign disclosure form.

But don't expect the mix-ups to be solved soon. Confusion, vagaries and loopholes have been hallmarks of Utah's lobbyist reporting system. Established by the Legislature eight years ago, the laws were intended to let the public know what benefits state leaders receive from those seeking influence on Capitol Hill.

But the laws have also become the bane of politicians and lobbyists alike. Critics of the laws view them as either annoyances used by the press and political opponents to embarrass incumbent politicians or a toothless tiger that doesn't get at the heart of who is trying to buy influence on Capitol Hill.

Lt. Gov. Olene Walker, whose State Elections Office has the responsibility to register and watch over lobbyists, agrees the laws need "updating." She is in the process of writing administrative rules that she hopes will clarify some ambiguities in the law.

The principal/lobbyist relationship is not one of them, however.

I'm a what?

Meantime, confusion will continue over who exactly are principals, when are they a principal and when does the law apply to them.

Just ask John Price.

Price, a regional developer, is active in state and national GOP politics. He belongs to the prestigious "100 Club," a group of wealthy Republicans who give the national party at least $100,000 a year. He is also the Utah Republican Party's national committeeman, and has become a close Leavitt friend. Lobbyist forms show Price as a principal in 1997 and 1998.

The governor has, over the past several years, flown with Price on the businessman's private jet, including an April 1998 trip to San Antonio to watch the University of Utah play in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The flight to San Antonio was legal, but Price did not report it as a benefit he provided to the governor.

When first contacted by the Deseret News, Price said he didn't know what the reporter was talking about. Through an aide, he said he had never hired a lobbyist and didn't consider himself a principal.

But for the past two years Price was registered as a principal by local government affairs consultant/lobbyist Ron Fox, according to records in Walker's election office.

Fox said he listed Price because he talked to some legislators about an issue on Price's behalf.

"I only did one item for (Price)," Fox said. "Basically I was hired for political reasons. I ran his national committeeman campaign (in the state Republican convention), did some fund raising for him and other political, not lobbying, things."

They love to fly

Delta Air Lines finds itself in a similar situation as Price, with lobbyists registered in Walker's office.

The airline routinely upgrades Leavitt to first class when the governor buys a coach seat, Leavitt told the Deseret News.

The upgrades are worth tens to hundreds of dollars each flight, depending on the flight's destination.

In response to Deseret News queries about why it hasn't reported the benefit, the airline issued a statement saying that an internal investigation by the air carrier showed "there may have been past instances, caused by an oversight in procedure, when a courtesy upgrade was given to a Utah State official" outside of the SkyMiles program.

Delta spokesman Tracy O'Donnal says that Delta does have a policy of giving "courtesy" upgrades to various state officials. But those upgrades are supposed to done under SkyMiles -- the air carrier's frequent flyer program -- which would mean a state officials does not receive any "benefit" to report.

But Leavitt and others were apparently given a benefit outside of the frequent flyer program. And so as a principal the airlines would have had to file principal/lobbyist reports.

The system has been corrected and upgrades for state officials will only come if there are enough SkyMiles to justify them, Delta's statement said.

Front row tickets

Finally, there's the problem of confusion over which report the benefits should show up on.

Fans watching coach Jerry Sloan pace the sidelines yelling at referees and players during Utah Jazz games sometimes may notice an excited Leavitt sitting courtside by the team bench.

Those are the seats of former state GOP chairman Frank Suitter, a partner in the law firm of Suitter Axland. Suitter Axland is a principal. And the law firm dutifully filed a principal disclosure statement for the first three months of 1999.

That report shows this year Leavitt has attended two Jazz games at Suitter's expense -- $900 worth of tickets Jan. 16 and $450 worth of tickets Feb. 4. Yet those are the only lobbyist disclosure reports the law firm filed.

Suitter declined to comment but provided documents that showed when Leavitt attended games in 1998 and before, the firm reported those tickets on its political action committee reports. But those reports are traditionally used to show campaign contributions and are filed separately by Walker's office from lobbyist reports.

So the Jazz tickets given Leavitt and other state officials by Suitter Axland are reported, you just have to know where to look.

Don't know, don't care

Leavitt, who has no responsibility under the law to report what he receives, makes a distinction between receiving benefits in his official capacity and as a private individual. A benefit provided in an official capacity would likely been seen in a different light by the public and those giving the benefit, he said.

However, the law doesn't distinguish between "official" events where Leavitt has some role -- such as throwing out the first pitch in a Buzz game and staying to watch the game -- or "nonofficial" events -- like sitting on the front row of a Jazz playoff game and not addressing the crowd.

But, Leavitt says, there are times when paying the full price for something can become too much of an awkward hassle, so he just accepts the benefit.

"I've gone to play golf with my son -- a completely private situation -- and I've actually had my wallet out ready to pay, and the pro (recognizes him) and says something like, 'We're going to pick this up, we like to see the governor playing our course, it's good for us.'

"And, you know, me walking a course has no discernable impact on the course and it's a kind gesture on their part, and I'm just not going to make a big deal (out of paying for the round over the pro's objections).

"These are people who I have no idea whether they are a 'principal' or not and I'd be very surprised if they knew they were a principal or not" under the law, Leavitt said.

Good reasons

Principals were included in the disclosure law, says Rep. Kevin Garn -- sponsor of the original law -- because all significant gifts to state executives and legislators should be disclosed publicly, whether the public official was acting in his official capacity when the gift came or not.

And, legislative attorney John Fellows adds, if principals had not been included, then lobbyists could have gotten around the reporting law simply by having their bosses give the benefit to the public official instead of the lobbyist.

Walker says that was exactly the problem her office issued an opinion on last year. Some lobbyists were passing along cash campaign contributions from their clients to legislators seeking re-election and telling the candidates they could report the campaign contribution as coming from the lobbyist or the client -- the principal. They were giving the option in case the client's name on the legislator's campaign filing may prove an embarrassment, where the lobbyist's name wouldn't.

"We put a stop to that," Walker said. "We said the principal, the person actually giving the check, had to be named." To re-enforce Walker's ruling a bill passed in the 1999 Legislature outlawing that practice.