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Utah lawmakers ‘gifted’

Each netted average of $1,113 in gifts last year

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Lobbyists gave Utah legislators an average of $1,113 each in personal gifts last year — free Utah Jazz tickets, college football tickets, dinner cruises, golf, nights at the theater, jewelry, trap shooting, meals at fine restaurants and such.

Deseret Morning News graphic Gifts to legislators

Lawmakers probably received even more, but due to loopholes in Utah law, gifts coming from groups not currently lobbying are not required to be disclosed. So, for example, the Taiwan government flies some legislative leaders to Asia every two years without public filings.

Even among gifts that are disclosed, exactly who accepts what is largely a mystery.

Laws require specific legislators and their gifts be identified only if they accept items worth more than $50 in one day from a lobbyist. Most gifts are divided into smaller amounts (sometimes with lawmakers paying part of the cost to avoid revealing their names).

Because of that loophole, it is not possible to identify who received 86 percent of the total value of gifts from lobbyists last year.

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Cottonwood Heights, is among those who question why such a system persists. She wonders, "(How) does a lobbyist gift serve my constituents? And there is no good answer. We'd like to think that a gift doesn't persuade someone's vote. But, in fact, it can."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. this week will issue an executive order banning all gift-taking in the executive branch of state government. In a Friday interview, Huntsman, a Republican, said he won't tell the legislative branch what to do but added: "If (the Legislature) is truly a representative body, then (lawmakers) will want to respond to what the public is saying."

And polls show over time that a super-majority of Utahns want their legislators to not take lobbyist gifts.

A proposed gift ban has been introduced in the Legislature, but few expect it to go far.

So, likely remaining when lawmakers adjourn Feb. 28 will be a legislative system that gift-exchangers say they dislike because it tends to construe lobbyist meetings (which would continue anyway) as a form of vote buying; poorer lobbying groups hate because they cannot afford to compete for lawmaker access; and lawmakers who take no gifts disdain because they say it tarnishes the system and them with it.

Gifts for access

Utah's 104 part-time legislators received a combined $115,698 in disclosed gifts last year, according to a computer-assisted analysis of disclosure forms by the Deseret Morning News.

The gifts came from 80 lobbyists (about a quarter of all active registered lobbyists in 2006) plus a few other groups.

The lobbyist who gave the most — $8,229, or $1 of every $14 given — was Alan Dayton, a former interim mayor of Salt Lake County who is the government relations director for Intermountain Healthcare.

Entertaining legislators "is part of doing an effective job for my clients," Dayton said. He added that it is hard to get time with busy lawmakers. So it is often best to do it over a meal, for which the legislator would need to make time anyway.

But an example of a more elaborate event was a dinner cruise on Tennessee's Cumberland River for 29 lawmakers and several spouses who were in Nashville for a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures last June. Dayton and five other lobbyists, who represent a combined 61 organizations, split the $4,218 cost among them. That amounted to about $142 per legislator on the cruise.

Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, was among lawmakers on that cruise. He also received the most disclosed gifts last year, according to forms, of any legislator — worth $1,170.

(Disclosure forms initially showed Bramble had accepted more than $3,100 in gifts. When showed that by the Morning News, he complained that two lobbyists made errors in reports about him — Stan Lockhart of Micron and Jay Magure of 1-800-CONTACTS. They then amended their reports. Bramble said he reimbursed Lockhart for Jazz games and dinners initially listed, and Magure said he had made errors that initially overstated his gifts to lawmakers by more than $2,700.)

Bramble said what he took in gifts "was fully disclosed," as the law requires. "We have transparency. We discuss this every year ... and the feeling of the Legislature is that we have adequate disclosure."

Still, the current system — where money buys face time with legislators — disturbs those who must lobby with little cash.

"We don't buy anything for legislators," said Karen Crompton, head of Voices for Utah Children. "If you pooled all of our yearly salaries" at her nonprofit group, "they wouldn't equal what one of these (high-priced independent) lobbyists makes."

Without the cash to pay for a meal, Crompton said, "When do we get to spend a whole hour with a legislator? We steal a few minutes from (legislators) in the hallways" during the session.

"Do we feel disadvantaged? Yes. All we can do is provide information. And we do that, and we are very careful with our integrity — what we tell them — because if we aren't honest, we're finished," she said. After all, such nonprofits cannot fix a slip-up with a $100 dinner or a $180 dollar Jazz ticket.

What is given

Of all gifts, food is the most popular. Lobbyists gave at least $67,196 in meals for lawmakers, or $646 per legislator on average. This comes even though legislators are paid $54 a day when in session for meals and other out-of-pocket expenses.

The most popular place for lobbyists to feed lawmakers is on Capitol Hill itself.

In fact, the House and Senate has an organization called the "Third House" that organizes events by lobbyists, many in the Hill's cafeteria. (Utah House members pay for their own caucus meals, while the Senate lets lobbyists pay for the twice-weekly caucus lunches. In return, the host lobbyist gets a few minutes to talk to senators at the luncheon.)

The Third House calendar for 2006 showed that some special interests offered free meals or snacks on the Hill almost every day of the session.

The most popular eating/lobbying spot off the Hill appeared to be Spencer's, which is rated as one of the top steak restaurants in America. Lobbyists spent $2,215 for dinners there for 15 legislators and their spouses during 2006.

Lobbying groups also spent $12,678 on tickets to sporting events for legislators last year, or $122 per lawmaker on average.

Most popular were Utah Jazz tickets. Nine lobbyists spent $5,230 to take 22 legislators (a fifth of all members) and family members to games. Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, attended the most Jazz games at lobbyist expense: five.

University of Utah sporting events were almost as popular. The university, which depends on the Legislature for much of its funding, gave $5,599 worth of tickets (and usually game-day meals, too) to lawmakers for football and basketball games. University spokesman Fred Esplin said it sends letters offering tickets to legislators at the beginning of each sports season.

Most of what the university spent — $4,396 — came for the sold-out, big-rivalry football game between Utah and Brigham Young University on Nov. 25. Esplin said some lawmakers had seats in the stands, and some were in the university president's suite.

The University of Utah did not reveal exactly which lawmakers, nor how many, it hosted at that game, saying the value of the tickets and food was below the $50 per person threshold for naming recipients.

But dividing the amount spent by that $50 disclosure limit shows that the university hosted at least 87 legislators and/or family members at the big game — if so, perhaps a majority of the Legislature attended.

Only one other state university provided any sports tickets to lawmakers last year. Utah State University spent $302 to host unnamed lawmakers during the also big-rivalry game between Utah and USU on Sept. 16.

Lobbyists also took lawmakers to games of the Utah Blaze pro indoor football team, BYU football and basketball, car races and other events that were disclosed on forms only as "football game" or "athletic event."

Participatory sports

Lobbyists did not spend money just to allow lawmakers to watch sports; they also helped them participate in some, too.

That included spending $1,580 to take lawmakers golfing. Most of the lawmakers receiving that perk were not named, because lobbyists reported that it cost less than $50 per person per excursion.

However, three lawmakers were named for some rounds with meals that exceeded the reporting threshold. They were Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden ($99 for a round and meal hosted by Merit Medical lobbyist Greg Fredde); Sen. Brent Goodfellow, D-West Valley ($84, hosted by Qwest lobbyist Jerry Fenn); and Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City ($90, hosted by Qwest lobbyist Eric C. Isom, a former Senate staffer).

Six lobbyists, representing 10 groups, also spent $265 to take an unclear number of legislators trap shooting.

Regence Blue Cross & Blue Shield said it spent $2,030 on 80 legislators for its "Move It" program that included giving them pedometers, which measure how far they walk — apparently a new way to prod lawmakers into action.

Lobbyists also spent $18,668 for other forms of entertainment for lawmakers, or $179 each on average.

For example, Daniel Tuttle, a former House member now a registered lobbyist for Great Salt Lake Energy, Desert Power and the Utah League of Credit Unions, spent $428 to take four legislators on a Great Salt Lake Cruise. They included Bramble; Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden; Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland; and Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi.

Descriptions of most entertainment were vague on the disclosure forms, including such listings as "entertainment for six legislators," "event," "event ticket" or "theater tickets for 15 legislators." Much of the spending in the entertainment category was for receptions.

Lobbyists also spent $8,245 on other types of gifts, or $79 per lawmaker.

Some of the descriptions of those include "product donation" by Nu Skin; computer "jump drive giveaways" from Micron lobbyist Lockhart (spouse of Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo); and cuff links and pins given away by Spencer Stokes, registered as a lobbyist for nine groups, including EnergySolutions and America First Credit Union.

Also, numerous lobbyists gave what they described merely as "Christmas gifts" to undisclosed lawmakers, along with "pens," "flowers," "books," "CDs," "taxi fare," "golf hat and towel," "golf shirt," "shirt," "hats" and "disposable camera."

Of note, the Deseret Morning News gave legislators $2,375 worth of free newspapers during their 2006 session. That made the newspaper the No. 9 largest clearly identifiable giver of gifts to lawmakers.

Biggest receivers, givers

Some legislators accept more gifts than others — at least, among those that are fully disclosed. Several legislative leaders were near the top of the list.

As noted, Bramble, the Senate majority leader, took the most — worth $1,170 — including $846 in meals; $200 in Utah Blaze tickets; $95 for a Great Salt Lake cruise; and $29 in Utah Jazz tickets. (Bramble had hundreds of dollars in Jazz tickets from Lockhart before Bramble paid Lockhart back for those events.)

Behind Bramble was Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, with $1,083. Fourth was House Majority Leader David Clark, R-Santa Clara, with $862. And fifth was Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, with $849.

Several gift-taking legislators said they had extenuating circumstances that expanded their entertainment costs. Clark said his son was his legislative intern in 2006, "and I took him with me to many of these events" that cost more than $50, "thus really doubling my costs."

As noted, Dayton, who is registered as a lobbyist for Intermountain Healthcare and the Utah Cable TV Association, gave the most among lobbyists, $8,229. Forms did not say who received about four-fifths of what he gave. But he provided $6,090 in meals, $1,596 for entertainment, $291 for what he listed only as "gifts," $235 for drinks and snacks and $17 for golf.

Other top gift-giving lobbyists included Robert Jolley (registered as a lobbyist for 19 groups ranging from Delta Air Lines to Zions Bank), $6,768; Blaze Wharton (a former legislator registered to lobby for 25 groups, including Qwest and Rocky Mountain Power), $5,897; Stokes, $5,225; and Qwest lobbyist Isom, $3,923.

Lobbyists with multiple clients do not disclose exactly which of them funded specific gifts they provided — which prevents clearly identifying the root special interest for about half the value of all gifts given.

Still, for the half where such special interests are clearly known, the group that gave the most was the Utah Soft Drink Association, which reported spending $10,741 on a reception for lawmakers, which is about $103 per lawmaker.

Other big-donor groups include the University of Utah, $8,202; the Utah Hospital Association, $4,115; Qwest, $4,007; Pfizer, $3,705; Micron, $3,358; Questar, $3,347; Regence Blue Cross & Blue Shield, $2,717; and the Deseret Morning News, $2,375.

The loopholes

Loopholes in the law provide only a murky idea of exactly what specific lawmakers receive and who provides it.

First, because of the loophole requiring naming legislators only if they accept $50 worth of gifts in a day, lobbyists avoided naming recipients for 86 percent of the value of gifts they provided.

Many lobbyists edge close to that limit, but not over it, to prevent disclosure. For example, lobbyist Stokes reported spending $49.90 each on dinner for two unnamed legislators on Oct. 18. That avoided disclosure by just a dime for each of them.

Lobbyist Dayton reported giving a "gift for 1 legislator" on March 20 worth $49.88 — escaping disclosure by just 12 cents.

Of note, some lawmakers and lobbyists through the years have said it is possible to escape disclosure by having a lawmaker agree to pay out of his pocket anything over the $50 limit.

Also, the $50 disclosure limit is written in a way that it allows lawmakers to take much more than that in value for his or her family and still not have their names revealed. That is because the limit is for "$50 per person" per day, and gifts are often divided among several members of a lawmaker's family.

For example, Qwest lobbyist Isom reported a "BYU football game and food for legislator and spouse and son" valued at $103 overall. But because it was split among three people — as the law says — it was less than $50 per person and the lawmaker was not named.

Another big loophole is that only lobbyists (or groups currently lobbying on something) must file disclosure reports. Groups that say they are not not lobbying and are not affected by any imminent legislation often give lawmakers plenty of gifts, none of which are disclosed. Of course, such groups may be building up good will for later.

For example, many of the groups that provided food and entertainment to legislators according to a Third House calendar for 2006 did not file any disclosure forms — apparently saying they were not lobbyists.

Some such groups can even offer expensive trips without revealing them.

For example, every couple of years or so, longtime lobbyist and former Senate president Cap Ferry, on behalf of the government of Taiwan, organizes a weeklong trip there for newly picked GOP legislative leaders.

Not all leaders go on each trip, but because Taiwan doesn't lobby the Utah Legislature, the expense-free trip is not recorded. "I have no idea what it costs," says Ferry, because the government picks up the tab and he doesn't see any bills.

Another loophole is that lobbyists with multiple clients do not need to disclose for which specific client they are making a gift. That makes determining exactly who is funding gifts difficult — and currently that is possible for only about half the value of all gifts.

Proposed ban

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, has introduced a bill this session to ban any gift worth more than $5 — but he has run similar bills in the past with no success.

Becker is not overly optimistic for passage this year either.

"I hope to get a hearing in the House. We're getting paid ($54) a day for meals. We should do things together as a body, build camaraderie. But we should pay our own way."

Becker adds, "The public expects us to have high standards. They expect us to have ethical practices which add to good government. We're anxious to dispel these beliefs (of unethical conduct), and the best way to do this is just eliminate all gifts. "

Gigi Brandt, president of the Utah League of Women Voters, also would like to see the lobbying laws tightened. Quoting one of the league's own citizen lobbyists: When someone gives you a valuable gift, you don't just say "thank you." "You say "much obliged" — and that really says it all — a legislator is obliged.

But Bramble, among others, said that the current system — with the $50 legislator-naming threshold — seems to work well. He criticized Becker's gift ban bill, saying legislators would still go to events or meals with lobbyists but would just pay for it out of their own campaign accounts (and a recent Morning News study showed special interests provide 95 percent of campaign money).

Indeed, Becker said he often pays for events he attends out of his campaign funds.

Intermountain Healthcare lobbyist Dayton also said his work and meetings with legislators likely would not be affected by a gift ban. "It would make no difference to me if they totally eliminated gifts or if they lower the reporting threshold to zero," a sentiment echoed by several other well-known lobbyists interviewed.

Also, Bramble said a gift ban might actually lead to less disclosure of who is meeting with lobbyists. He said lawmakers using campaign money to pay their own way wouldn't need to be very specific in their own filings, so, "You would actually have less disclosure, less transparency, than you have now" because the lobbyists meeting with legislators may not be named.

As noted, Huntsman said he will this week ban gifts to executive branch bosses. Only $8,100 in gifts were made to executive branch leaders in 2006, about one-fourteenth the amount made to legislators.

The judicial branch of state government doesn't allow gifts to judges.

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com