Lobbyists Still Buying Meals for Md. Legislators

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

When two committees of the Maryland legislature held hearings this year on a bill to allow speed cameras statewide, some arguments undoubtedly sounded familiar. Weeks earlier, a national speed camera contractor invited the membership of both committees to a dinner at an upscale steakhouse organized by its Annapolis lobbyist. The night's tab: more than $3,700.

What is striking about the dinner is not that it took place, but how commonplace such largesse has become. During the 90-day legislative session that ended last month, close to $1 million was spent on meals and receptions hosted by lobbyists and their largely corporate clients, according to State Ethics Commission filings.

Under a nearly decade-old law, lobbyists cannot buy meals for individual lawmakers. Yet they are allowed to entertain them in large groups such as committees or county delegations, and often do so at considerable expense to those they represent.

"It's one of the bizarre contradictions within our ethics law," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery). "Only the wealthiest of interests can have access to us. . . . I don't think any of us are bought over a steak dinner, but unlike in a public hearing, where the other side can counter arguments that are made and where there are time limits, you a have a captive, private audience."

The 1999 law, meant to curb excesses of an earlier era, is now widely seen as a disadvantage to grass-roots organizations and lobbying shops with smaller budgets. But even some of those whom the law seems to favor question its rationale.

Joel Rozner, the top-earning lobbyist for Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, a prominent lobbying firm in Annapolis, said it does not make sense to ban meals with individual legislators while permitting other overtures that could arguably exercise greater influence.

"It seems inconsistent that the law prohibits me from buying a $2 hot dog for a legislator, but it allows me to write a $4,000 campaign contribution check," Rozner said, adding: "Not that I would."

During the past session, Rozner's firm hosted 15 dinners and receptions, typically dividing the cost among a dozen or more clients, some of whom were in attendance. The average cost of a dinner was nearly $4,400. Lobbyists from the firm also attended other dinners organized by clients, including the Maryland Association of Realtors and Children's National Medical Center.

Lobbyists from Annapolis's top-earning firm, Alexander & Cleaver, played a role in coordinating more than 50 meals and receptions for clients that included a range of health-care interests, a manufacturer of electronic bingo machines, Wal-Mart and ACS State and Local Solutions, the speed-camera contractor.

Rozner argued that allowing meals with individual lawmakers -- with full disclosure of who is entertained -- would permit his firm to "do business the way it is conducted in this country" and make it easier for those with fewer resources to make their case to legislators over lunch or dinner.

Under current law, lobbyists must disclose which committees or delegations they invite and how much is spent, but they are not required to report who attends. Some lawmakers are regulars at lobbyist-sponsored dinners, accepting two or three invitations a week, while others stay away for philosophical reasons or a desire to spend time with their families.

The rationale for the 1999 law was partly to sever the free-spending relationships between some lobbyists and favored lawmakers, a move that some say still makes sense, however imperfect the solution.

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