Lobbyists In Md. Find Ways to Wine, Dine
Monday, April 3, 2006
An exception to tough lobbying restrictions that Maryland lawmakers put in place five years ago has given electric utilities and other wealthy interests the ability to spend lavishly on meals for elected officials, state records show.
In recent days, Pepco executives and company-hired lobbyists have engaged in intensive talks with legislators over looming electricity rate increases. At night, they have dined with the lawmakers on at least 10 occasions since January, spending more than $26,000 at upscale steakhouses and other high-priced restaurants, ethics filings show.
The dinner parties are permitted because of an exception in a landmark 2001 ethics law. The law prohibited lobbyists from taking individual members to dinner but permitted meals as long as an entire legislative committee was invited.
"I think we solved one problem and created a whole new one," Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) said. "The current rules provide in essence a giant loophole to the lobbying reforms."
Most lawmakers and lobbyists say the committee dinners serve as an aboveboard stand-in to past practices. Not too long ago, it was possible for free-spending lobbyists to actually hand over their credit cards to lawmakers so they could run up tabs on drinks and meals.
The committee dinners, by contrast, are publicly announced in advance and are catalogued in detailed records kept by the Maryland State Ethics Commission.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who chairs the committee handling the utility regulations, said the public shouldn't view the dinners as problematic. "What I get out of it is, if there is an issue coming before my committee, I can sit down and get their view of it in a relaxed atmosphere," Middleton said. "I recognize it is one side of the issue, and I know it is incumbent on me to get the other side."
Still, many lobbyists who represent nonprofit and consumer groups say the new rules have exacerbated the concern that the lobbying law was intended to solve -- namely, that those with enough money could buy special access in Annapolis. The ethics filings show that the vast majority of receptions and dinners are hosted by top-grossing local companies that typically cater to corporate clientele and business associations.
"The nonprofit groups can't afford to stage these kinds of lavish dinners," said Sean Dobson, a lobbyist for Progressive Maryland, noting that some committees have more than 20 members. "It's just too expensive for us."
Not all lobbyists take advantage of the allowance. Constellation Energy Group has directed more than $225,000 into campaign contributions to top lawmakers and hired a brigade of lobbyists in town to champion its interests. But records show the group has hosted only two receptions since the General Assembly convened in January.
Many other companies -- including large health care concerns, the alcoholic beverage industry and gambling interests -- have routinely entertained lawmakers. Most legislators, especially those on committees with oversight of business issues, have the chance to eat dinner on most if not every night of the 90-day session, courtesy of lobbyists, the records show.
This year, one of the biggest spenders has been Pepco and its Annapolis lobbying firm, Rikin, Livingston, Levitan and Silver. The firm's chief lobbyist, Joel Rozner, declined to comment when asked about the meals involving Pepco.