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Lobbyists bought $100 meal for Alaska Senate president before vote on building

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 27, 2016

JUNEAU — Alaska Senate President Kevin Meyer accepted a $100 meal from two lobbyists for one of the developers of lawmakers' Anchorage offices a week before voting to buy those offices for $32.5 million.

Lobbyists Robert Evans and John Bitney reported spending a combined $107 on Meyer's food and drinks March 24, plus another $75 for Meyer's chief of staff and $190 for two other Senate aides.

On March 31, Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, was one of 13 members of the Legislative Council, a committee of legislative leaders, who voted to buy the Anchorage office space from developers Mark Pfeffer and Bob Acree for $32.5 million — a plan that's since been put on ice by Gov. Bill Walker, who said he would veto it.

Pfeffer's company, Pfeffer Development, pays Evans $75,000 a year, while Bitney works for Evans. Evans has 11 other clients.

Meyer said he didn't recall the specifics of the meal or of the conversation that took place. But he added that the gift from the lobbyists wouldn't have affected his decision about the building purchase. The name of the restaurant was not listed in the report.

"Going out to dinner with someone doesn't impact my vote one way or the other," he said in an interview Wednesday. "I think if you look at dinners and votes, there is no correlation."

Meyer earned between $100,000 and $200,000 last year working for oil company ConocoPhillips, plus a legislative salary of $51,000. Lawmakers also get $213 a day while they're working in Juneau to cover their living expenses.

Asked why he couldn't pay for his own meals, Meyer responded: "We could."

"I don't know if that's common practice — maybe some of the legislators do," he said.

Under the state's ethics laws, lawmakers and legislative employees are barred from accepting gifts from lobbyists — though there are exceptions for tickets to charity events and food and drinks "for immediate consumption."

A 2007 ethics reform package, passed amidst a corruption scandal in the Legislature, included a provision that requires lobbyists to report any time they buy more than $15 in food or drink for legislators or staff — though lawmakers in 2010 tried to raise the threshold to $50.

In addition to Meyer's dinner, reports filed this year show that Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, and an aide to Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, each had their $200 fees for a charity miniature golf tournament in March paid by Dennis DeWitt. DeWitt works for a lobbying firm whose clients include the company behind the proposed Pebble Mine, the brewery giant Anheuser-Busch and the state's cruise industry trade group.

As a Medicaid reform bill sponsored by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, worked its way through the Legislature this year, the lobbyist reports show he and his wife had a $94 meal paid for by Elizabeth Gianini. Gianini lobbies for WellCare Health Plans, a company that provides managed-care services for government health programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Lobbyists reported buying several meals for Meyer over the course of this year's legislative session. Jerry Mackie, a former legislator whose clients include the state optometrists association, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., Donlin Gold and Alyeska Pipeline Service Corp., spent $535 in March on a dinner for Meyer and five legislative staff — four of whom are Meyer's aides.

Evans, whose clients include an affiliate of Koch Industries and Safeway as well as Pfeffer Development, paid $300 on behalf of House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and five of Chenault's employees at a charity event benefiting the Southeast Food Bank.

Chenault said he didn't know who bought his tickets and didn't ask.

"It's probably nothing that's uncommon. It has nothing to do with things that are going on," he said. "As long as you're following the rules and it's reported, then those are the rules that we go by."

Evans, who also helped pay for Meyer's meal before the vote to purchase the Anchorage legislative offices, said the subject didn't come up over food.

"This is a community," Evans said in a brief interview at the Capitol on Wednesday. He added: "I never talk business at my dinners."

Pfeffer, in a brief phone interview, said he had "no idea" about the meal and referred questions about it to Evans.

While Meyer's free meal was legal, it doesn't help Alaskans' trust in their government, said Lori Hanemann, the executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for campaign finance reform and against the influence of money in politics.

"Would I, as a citizen, be able to buy the Senate president dinner right before a big decision?" she asked in a phone interview Wednesday. "I'm getting a sense from social media and from talking to Alaskans that they're just really disturbed with any kind of trust factor in the Legislature."

Asked for his opinion about the meal, Ray Metcalfe, the former state legislator turned anticorruption crusader, put it more bluntly: "If it was a dinner among friends, Mr. Meyer is paid handsomely by ConocoPhillips — he can afford to buy his own."

Meyer said that the idea that lawmakers should pay for their own meals when they dine with lobbyists is a "topic worth discussion." But the very idea seemed to perplex him.

"We could pay for our own way," he said. "I'm just trying to think how that would work."

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