The Edmond Sun

Opinion

September 24, 2012

Shaking down lobbyists once considered sport

GUTHRIE — Back in February I wrote an article describing the influence of certain lobbyists over the legislative process. I wrote that lobbyists, “ . . . are professional relationship manipulation experts and expert strategists, and they know the pressure points to push to get a key lawmaker’s vote. Their attempts to kill a good bill appear to be rather like a game to them. A team of lobbyists can point to a dead bill much like a trophy and use it as a warning to other legislators who might try to upset their deal.”

I think the preceding paragraph very aptly describes the procedures used by certain special interests. It is important to note that not every member of the lobbyist profession falls into that description. The lobbying profession in my view isn’t that different from the legal profession. Those who enter it know they will be paid to express a certain opinion and will be challenged to filter, bend or distort the truth to the benefit of their client. It is a very difficult profession to enter into and keep a moral compass. But there are certainly those who do just that and I think it is important to keep this in mind.

Those who enter into these types of professions and manage to draw a clear, unassailable line are individuals of very strong character. They are subject to having to make some very tough and costly decisions in order to do the right thing. Perhaps they decide to turn down the patronage of a client because that client wants them to cross the line. Or maybe they have to stand up to politicians and refuse to do what the politician wants them to do.

I have taken a pledge to not take gifts or political contributions from lobbyists and lobbyist-represented entities. This pledge has been most liberating because it has allowed me to interact with lobbyists based on the merit of their proposals. I think lobbyists appreciate the fact that we can discuss policy without ever having to worry about if they made a large enough contribution to my campaign or if they included me in an invitation to a lobbyist-sponsored dinner. This relationship also allows them to communicate their frustrations with the current system.

Based on their feedback, it is easy to see that too many politicians in the past made a game out of seeing how much money they could milk out of lobbyists’ bank accounts.

Consider the following examples from recent years mostly involving lawmakers who are no longer in office:

Lawmakers raised money from lobbyists in order to sponsor out-of-state trips to various events hosted by different associations. A lobbyist would be solicited to make a donation to the fund. The lawmaker who solicited the donation would receive a “commission” of 50 percent of the amount raised. In essence, lobbyists who donated to “sponsor” a legislator’s trip wouldn’t just be paying for the trip, but would also put hundreds of extra spending dollars in the lawmaker’s pocket, whether they knew it or not. This presumably went unreported and was not reviewable by the taxpayers.

Don’t think for a minute that these lawmakers were actually going to spend that money on a trip. Once in attendance at these out-of-state conferences, some lawmakers used to make a sport out of finding lobbyists to take them to the best restaurants and run up a huge tab. In one such case, a group of Oklahoma lawmakers managed to find a team of three lobbyists to take them out to eat. The politicians took the opportunity to order extremely costly items and very expensive wine. When the bill for hundreds of dollars was provided to one of the lobbyists, the lobbyist asked the waiter to please divide the bill between the three lobbyists so they could share the cost. It fell to the waiter to inform the shocked lobbyist that they had already divided the bill and this bill for hundreds of dollars represented just one-third of the cost.

Certain lawmakers didn’t have a problem double crossing their financiers who pay for this expensive game. I can recall the frustration of one lobbyist who described how he was working a vote. A lawmaker gave him his word that he would vote with the lobbyist’s position. The lawmaker almost immediately broke his word and voted the other way. Later that same day, when it was time for lunch, the lawmaker called the lobbyist and without missing a beat asked the lobbyist if he would take the lawmaker and his friends out for lunch. Surely a person with the tiniest amount of shame should have at least waited for a couple of days before asking for stuff again.

These stories represent events in year’s past. I do think the situation improves each year as the old guard politicians are term limited and a new wave of citizen legislators replaces them. Next week I plan to describe how term limits continue to make a difference as those legislators who were around when the Legislature was dominated by powerful elitists politicians are becoming fewer and fewer in number.

REP. JASON MURPHEY, R-Guthrie, represents House District 31, which encompasses all of Logan County and a portion of northern Edmond. He may be reached via email at jason.murphey@okhouse.gov, on Facebook at facebook.com/JasonMurphey and Twitter.com/JWMurphey.

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