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Lobbyists In Md. Find Ways to Wine, Dine

Other energy interests and their lobbyists have been big spenders, too. Mirant -- which operates power plants in Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties -- spent more than $6,000 on dinners with legislative delegations from those jurisdictions and with the committees that deal most with energy issues: the Senate Finance Committee and the House Economic Matters Committee.

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's) chairs the economic matters panel. Davis said that although he attends the dinners, he does not think they have given the power industry a leg up in the heated deliberations over looming rate increases.

"They're informative, no question," Davis said. "But at the end of the day, we all know whom we're beholden to. Believe it or not, we know we're here for our constituents, and we act accordingly."

Madaleno and others said they think the dinners create a special forum for only the most wealthy interests.

"You have a situation where only a few corporations and a few of the large lobbying firms have this access," Madaleno said. "And let's face it, when you have a very busy day, dinner in the evening is the one time when you can really have a captive audience with a group of legislators. Very few interests can afford to do it. In my mind, it's wrong."

What's more, the meals are not "at the party room at McDonald's," he said.

The new rules have created a cottage industry for upscale restaurants, several of which have reconfigured their dining rooms to allow for lobbyists to entertain large parties in private rooms.

One restaurant catering to those legislative dinners, OB's Prime, seats lawmakers at tables set up in a horseshoe, almost as if they were in their committee room. As servers pass out baked crab balls, prime rib and salmon Bombay, the lobbyists can give a formal presentation.

The scene rubs a few lawmakers the wrong way. Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), said he thinks there's "something unsavory about the idea that a lobbyist can still take a very small group of legislators out and entertain them."

"Things are better than they used to be here and much better than they are on Capitol Hill," Frosh said. "But clearly they're still not perfect."


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