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$15 meals not enough for state's legislators

  • Author: Sean Cockerham
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published February 22, 2010

Alaska lawmakers are talking about rolling back one of the highest-profile pieces of ethics reform passed during the heat of the federal corruption investigation: the requirement lobbyists report when they buy legislators any meal or drink over $15.

The law has proven unpopular with legislators who say it's pretty much impossible to get a decent dinner in Juneau for less than 15 bucks. Lawmakers who want to keep the limit counter that lobbyists can pick up the tab for more than $15; they just need to disclose it to the Alaska Public Offices Commission and publicly name the legislator or legislative staff member they treated.

The issue centers on a bill in the Legislature that could raise the limit to $50 before a lobbyist needs to report.

Meals bought by lobbyists have always been part of the legislative culture in Juneau. It might be a round of drinks at the Triangle Club or maybe a dinner with wine at Zephyr, where the lobbyist makes sure to grab the bill when it arrives and none of the legislators at the table object.

A review of disclosures shows that lobbyists for cruise ship interests, refiners, seafood corporations, health care interests, municipalities and others reported picking up tabs worth hundred of dollars last year.

"Is a meal unethical? No. Should it be reported? Well, maybe. If you spend $100 bucks on a meal, I think people have a right to know. But if you're just sitting down to a meal with somebody, what's the big deal? It's nothing unethical," said North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill.

Coghill sponsored a wide-ranging ethics bill that was reworked with bipartisan support by the House Judiciary Committee to raise the disclosure limit for lobbyist-paid meals to $50. Coghill favors the change but worries that controversy over the idea will sink HB 193 and a half-dozen things in the bill that he considers urgent, such as language making it clear what legislators can do to help constituents and when they can participate in charity events paid by others. The bill was introduced by Coghill when he was in the House last year, before he joined the Senate, and is now awaiting a hearing by the House Finance Committee

Coghill said he does believe that $15 isn't a reasonable figure when it comes to a full dinner and that the reporting rule makes it seem like accepting more is unethical.

"What happens is that $15, when you sit down with the lobbyist, that becomes the discussion, rather than what are we here to talk about, or are we enjoying each other's company. It's always, 'Is this $14.99 or is this $15.02?' It really becomes almost a comedy on what we're trying to do," Coghill said. "It makes it less legitimate, and that's really unfortunate because we are really trying to figure out what's ethical and what isn't."

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan, who has a blanket policy of never letting lobbyists buy his meals, said the argument makes no sense to him.

"This isn't about they can only spend $15," Doogan said. "It's about they can only spend $15 without having to report it. I am not very sympathetic. I keep hearing people talk about that stuff, but really what they're saying is, 'I want to go out and do this and not have my name show up.' "

The Legislature passed the $15 disclosure threshold as part of a far-reaching ethics reform package in 2007. The package was part of a legislative session that was rocked by federal bribery and extortion charges against Alaska politicians.

RESTAURANTS NOT NAMED

Lobbyists can drop hundreds of dollars when they take legislators and their staffs out on the company dime.

The Tesoro lobbyist, for example, spent a total of $390 for a pair of meals in February of last year. He treated Kenai Rep. Kurt Olson, Kenai Sen. Thomas Wagoner and two of their staff members. Tesoro operates a refinery near Kenai.

The lobbyist, Kip Knudson, also spent more than $300 for a get-together in March. That time he reported paying for Wagoner, Wagoner' wife, House Speaker Mike Chenault, Coghill and Gene Therriault, who was a state senator from North Pole at the time and who is now a top energy adviser to Gov. Sean Parnell.

Those would have been disclosed even if the threshold for reporting had been $50 rather than $15. But it wouldn't have needed to be public, for example, that BP lobbyist Paul Quesnel treated Rep. Olson and Rep. Beth Kerttula in July for $45 apiece.

Quesnel hosted a pricier event in April just four days after last year's legislative session ended, reporting that he spent $530 on it. The BP lobbyist paid for Rep. Craig Johnson, Johnson's wife, Sen. Lesil McGuire, Sen. Joe Thomas, Wagoner, Sen. Gary Stevens and Stevens' wife.

Sometimes lobbyists split the charges among multiple clients. Kent Dawson last year treated Olson and Rep. Mike Hawker for $88.68 apiece, for example, reporting that he divided the costs among clients Princess Tours, the Alaska Cruise Association and Trident Seafoods Corporation.

The disclosures don't reveal the location of the restaurant or what they ordered, only names and amounts.

There is no need for lobbyists to report the name of a legislator they dine with if the legislator pays his or her own tab. Sometimes a legislator will pay only the portion of the bill that's above $15 and let the lobbyist take care of the rest, which also avoids the need to disclose the lawmaker's name.

The disclosures aren't available online, unlike much of the other information compiled from candidates, public officials and lobbyists by the Alaska Public Offices Commission. The APOC office in Juneau houses the reports, although they are now filed electronically along with other lobbyist data. Sifting through them all is not an easy prospect; more than 100 lobbyists file multiple reports a year.

'I NEVER ORDER WHAT I REALLY WANT'

The House Judiciary Committee endorsed raising the disclosure ceiling for lobbyist meals to $50 in April, during the closing days of the last legislative session. Judiciary Chairman Ramras brought it up, saying he'd just returned from a lunch at Olivia's Mexican Restaurant in Juneau with Kevin Jardell, whose biggest client is Exxon Mobil.

Ramras said he decided to try the shrimp fajitas without checking the menu for the cost, and when the bill came, it was $18.95 plus the price of a drink.

"After I put it together, then do you come up with $5, is that enough money? And then your ethics begin to get tested over the $2 or $3 that takes you outside of the $15," Ramras said.

Ramras, R-Fairbanks, proposed raising the disclosure threshold to $35. He said the $15 limit was an "overreaction to a hot environment" in the Legislature that hasn't had a great effect other than to make it awkward when a dinner bill comes.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Max Gruenberg suggested the limit ought to be $50 instead. "I think that many times lobbyists would do it at dinner. And for those of us who are married that often does include our spouses," Gruenberg said.

Eagle River Republican Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom agreed $50 was better. She noted food can be very expensive in rural parts of the state, as well as in big cities in the Lower 48 where lawmakers attend meetings put on by groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Conference of State Governments-West.

"I mean, sometimes you can't get an appetizer for $50," Dahlstrom told her colleagues on the judiciary committee. "I really think most of us are really quite reasonable in our food choices. I very seldom even go out to dinner with lobbyists but when I do I can pretty much say with assurety I never order what I really want."

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

By SEAN COCKERHAM

scockerham@adn.com

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