By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
After years of scandals exposing the unsavory side of Annapolis, Maryland lawmakers sought during several rounds of reforms to limit the role lobbyists play in raising campaign cash.
But lobbyists are still finding ways to help fill campaign coffers for the legislators they seek to influence.
Last year, for instance, one lobbyist gave personal campaign contributions to nearly one-quarter of General Assembly members, whose next elections were still three years off.
Even more legislators -- about 40 percent -- received a donation from a political action committee operated by a prominent law firm with lobbyists working the State House corridors.
And an untold number of lawmakers received copies of client lists from lobbyists that include contacts to call to seek campaign contributions -- a practice the State Ethics Commission has advised is legal under existing law.
"It remains something of a two-way street," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who served on a commission whose recommendations led to the round of reforms in 2001. "We go to them and ask for money, and they come to us and ask for votes."
In 1991, Maryland banned lobbyists from "soliciting" donations for candidates for statewide and legislative offices. In 1997, lawmakers prohibited lobbyists from setting up PACs to distribute money to lawmakers. And in 2001, at the urging of the commission, lobbyists were no longer allowed to forward tickets to lawmakers' fundraisers to their clients.
But lobbyists can still donate their own money to lawmakers whose votes they seek to influence -- a practice common last year among the top earners in Annapolis. In addition to the lobbyists themselves, several of the law firms with which they are affiliated made corporate or PAC contributions to legislators, statewide officials and party committees.
A PAC affiliated with the Baltimore law firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander gave more than $25,000 to lawmakers, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and others last year. Two other firms made $10,000 contributions to a Democratic Party committee.
Although lobbyists are not allowed to ask their clients to give money to legislators, one leading firm, Schwartz, Metz & Wise, lists upcoming fundraisers on its Web site as "an informational service."
Joseph A. Schwartz III, a lobbyist so well established in Annapolis that a sandwich bears his name at an upscale restaurant near the State House, said the list does not amount to "solicitation" because his firm posts information on every fundraiser that comes to its attention. "We're not directing anything," said Schwartz, whose clients include medical interests and pharmaceutical companies.
Joel D. Rozner, a lobbyist whose clients include power companies and health-care interests, said the donations he made last year to 44 legislators, according to State Board of Elections records, had no bearing on his work in Annapolis.
"It doesn't get me anything, and there's no expectation that it should get me anything," he said in a recent interview outside a Senate committee room. "It's a function of exercising my free speech and supporting my friends."
Rozner cited his long involvement in Maryland politics, which included service as chief of staff to Parris N. Glendening (D) during his tenure as Prince George's County executive and a stint on the Prince George's Democratic Party Central Committee.
Although several Prince George's lawmakers were among those who received contributions from Rozner, he also gave last year to four committee chairmen in the House of Delegates and three committee chairmen in the Senate, all of whom have a significant say on what legislation moves forward, as well as several Republicans.
Under Maryland law, lobbyists, like any other individuals, may give no more than $10,000 of their personal funds to candidates during a four-year election cycle. As a result, lobbyists who give to many candidates typically give in relatively small increments.
Rozner's donations last year ranged from $50 to $500, a pattern that is typical among other top-earning lobbyists. John R. Stierhoff, whose clients include insurance and power companies, gave to 30 legislators last year. His donations ranged from $100 to $1,000, with the larger amount going to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), for whom Stierhoff once worked.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said for many lobbyists, such contributions are considered a small cost of doing business in Annapolis.
Rozner, for example, reported receiving more than $972,000 in compensation from clients between November 2006 and October 2007, the second-highest in Annapolis, according to ethics filings. Stierhoff reported nearly $782,000, the fourth-highest.
Barve and other lawmakers suggested that lobbyists believe political donations improve their access to lawmakers, making it easier to drop by their offices to explain their side of a bill. But Barve said it is a false perception.
"Obviously, they're not doing it for nothing," he said. "I guess they feel like they have to. But my position has always been that my door is open to anybody who is civil."
Several of Annapolis's top lobbyists are affiliated with law firms, whose reach in political giving is much greater if viewed as a whole.
Rozner, for example, is affiliated with the firm of Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver. The firm itself made corporate contributions last year to 22 legislators, and several lobbyists who work alongside Rozner also gave to multiple lawmakers from their personal funds. Collectively, 71 lawmakers received a check from the firm or at least one of its five lobbyists.
A similar pattern existed with Alexander & Cleaver, a firm led by Gary R. Alexander, a former House speaker pro tem, who was the top-compensated lobbyist in Annapolis during the last reporting period, with more than $1.1 million in earnings. Last year, 59 lawmakers received contributions from either Alexander's firm or from the personal funds of Alexander or other lobbyists working with his firm to influence legislation.
Alexander said there is no formal coordination among lobbyists in his firm, but people tend to give more to legislators from their part of the state.
He also argued that given the "extremely low" $10,000 limit on individuals, "it's hard to say donations really influence the process." Many lobbyists go to fundraisers because they enjoy them, he said. "If you're a lobbyist, you're a political junkie also."
Alexander & Cleaver and Rifkin, Livingston also both gave $10,000 last year to the Maryland Democratic State Central Committee.
Although lobbyists are barred from operating political action committees, they are allowed to play limited advisory roles to PACs operated by law firms with which they are affiliated, according to advice distributed by the State Ethics Commission.
The firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, whose team in Annapolis includes two of the top-25 compensated lobbyists, has been able to broaden its political reach in the capital -- and give in greater amounts -- through the use of its PAC. Under Maryland law, PACs, unlike individuals and corporations, are not subject to a $10,000 cap on giving during a four-year cycle.
A review of the firm's PAC contributions to 79 legislators last year generally shows larger amounts going to Senate members than House members, with most committee chairmen in both chambers receiving $500. The PAC also gave $2,000 to the governor a month before the start of a November special session on the state's finances.
D. Robert Enten, who heads Gordon, Feinblatt's government relations team in Annapolis, declined to discuss the PAC or what role he plays in relation to it. The PAC is chaired by another lawyer in the 70-member firm. Enten, described on the firm's Web site as "one of Maryland's best-known lobbyists," reported nearly $725,000 in compensation from clients during the last year-long reporting period, sixth-highest in Annapolis.
The PAC appears to be funded by contributions from lawyers in the firm, including Enten, according to campaign filings.
Lobbyists can also be helpful in directing lawmakers to clients who might make campaign contributions, according to several legislators interviewed for this report. One lawmaker provided a copy to The Washington Post of two client lists he had received from top lobbyists in Annapolis. The lawmaker requested anonymity out of concern for alienating the lobbyists.
One of the lists included close to 60 clients of Rifkin, Livingston, along with contact names and numbers. That spreadsheet was headlined: "2007 Legislative Client Contacts for Elected Officials."
Asked how frequently the list is requested for fundraising purposes, Rozner, a member of the firm, said: "It's common, and it's commonly provided."
Rozner said the Ethics Commission has said the practice is allowable, and he noted that lobbyists' clients are publicly disclosed on the commission's Web site.
Lawmakers say there is value in getting lists directly from lobbyists, however. Oftentimes, the contact names listed are people accustomed to receiving fundraising calls. That saves time, one lawmaker said, by limiting the number of times he gets transferred before finding the right person.