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Lobbyists use legal loopholes in reports

Lobbyists spent approximately $107,000 on Utah's legislators and top executives during the 2001 Legislature, a review of lobbyist disclosure reports by the Utah Progressive Network shows.

Jeanna Nixon, program coordinator for UPNet, said as in previous years, it is impossible to link most of the spending to specific lawmakers because of what she termed Utah's lax lobbyist reporting laws.

If a registered lobbyist spends more than $50 in "intangible gifts," such as a meal or Jazz ticket, on an individual legislator in one 24-hour period, the legislator's name must accompany the report.

But some lobbyists have begun splitting the cost of an expensive Jazz ticket or meal among themselves. That drops each lobbyist's gift cost below $50, and so the name of the lawmaker who accepted the gift is not disclosed.

Paul Rogers, a former state senator and one of three partners in the Tetris Group, a leading lobbying firm, told the Deseret News during the session that he believes the law requires that he and his partners split the cost of every gift to a legislator. And he would continue doing it until the law was changed.

UPNet found that out of the $107,000 given in the first two months of 2001, only $10,000 came with a legislator's or executive's name attached.

Jazz tickets were again popular among Utah's legislators and the governor, according to UPNet's findings.

Gov. Mike Leavitt received $1,232 in Jazz tickets from attorney/lobbyist Frank Suitter, a former chairman of the Utah Republican Party. Suitter's front-row Jazz tickets are next to the seat Jazz coach Jerry Sloan usually occupies and are often taken by Leavitt, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and other notables.

State Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, received $991 worth of Jazz tickets; followed by Sen. David Steele, R-West Point, who got $504 in Jazz tickets. Rep. Bryan Holladay, R-Taylorsville; Bennion; Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George; and Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake; all received $432 in Jazz tickets, UPNet said.

Sen. President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, received $422 in benefits, including Jazz tickets and tickets to a fund-raiser, UPNet said.

The House Republican caucus took a position in favor of a bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley, that would have specifically outlawed gift-splitting by lobbyists. The bill unanimously passed the House.

But Senate Republicans refused to hear the measure. When a Democratic senator tried to lift the bill for a vote late in the session, he was voted down.

That led Cassie Dippo of Utah Common Cause to speculate that perhaps some senators want to keep the gift-splitting loophole legal through the 2002 Winter Olympics so they can anonymously accept expensive Olympic event tickets from lobbyists.

But Mansell said repeatedly during the 2001 session that most senators just don't believe there is a problem with legislators taking gifts from lobbyists. Mansell added there was no appetite in the Senate to deal with campaign financing, conflict of interests or other so-called government reform issues.

And those issues were politicized somewhat after some House and Senate Democrats put forward a package of government reform bills and challenged Republicans to hear them and pass them.

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, had several bills, one of which would have banned all gifts to lawmakers. But the House Rules Committee, with some Democrats voting with the majority Republicans, refused to let Becker's bills be heard. Ultimately, one of Becker's bills was sent out of the committee after Becker, with the help of House GOP Speaker Marty Stephens and Majority Leader Kevin Garn, gathered 38 signatures to lift the bills.

Rep. Joe Murray, R-Ogden, introduced a bill that would have lowered the reporting level from $50 to $25. But in a committee his bill was substituted with a measure by Rep. Chad Bennion, R-Murray, that would have required the disclosure, by name, of every gift lawmakers took from lobbyists. That amended bill was never voted out by the committee and died at adjournment, as did Becker's bills.