Lobbyists Give Public Officials Freebies

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Sushi, discounted legal fees, contact lenses and sporting event tickets were among the freebies doled out to public officials by lobbyists over the past three months, reports released Wednesday show.

The disclosures follow a year in which Gov. Jon Huntsman banned executive branch employees from receiving gifts and legislators grudgingly agreed to reveal which public officials are getting free tickets to college and professional sporting events.

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, wants to end the gift giving because he says it undermines the public's faith in government.

"There's no question it diminishes the confidence the public has in the decisions that we make," he said. "No public benefit has been served by having lobbyists buy meals, buy Jazz tickets and buying golf games."

Sen. Minority Whip Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, received a $1,259 discount on legal fees from Phillip Dyer, a lobbyist for Anchor Investments Co. and the Manufacturing Agents National Association.

Davis said Dyer gave him a discount on personal legal matters and that the two have known each other for years. He said the discount wasn't the result of his being a lawmaker and Dyer being a lobbyist, but rather from being friends.

"I've known him for a number of years before he was a lobbyist," Davis said. "I don't think (the discount) was as a lobbyist. It was for legal services rendered."

Becker -- who is running for mayor of Salt Lake City -- said Davis shouldn't have gotten the discount.

"To me it falls into the same category as any other gift," he said. "Why should we as elected officials be treated differently than average citizens? If someone provides a service to a citizen, they're expected to pay for it."

The majority of lobbyist spending is buying meals, drinks and entertainment.

Wednesday's financial disclosure reports are among the first where lobbyists were required to identify public officials who accept tickets that cost less than $50 to professional or collegiate sporting events.

Several lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, and Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-N. Ogden, attended a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game paid for by lobbyist Steve Proper. Proper lobbies for Comcast and the Utah Cable and Telecommunications Association. The tickets were $35 each and in the past legislators who received the tickets wouldn't have been identified by name.

Bramble said he doesn't discuss business when attending games and doesn't let free tickets influence him.

"If I go to a basketball game I go to watch the game, I'm not interested in talking shop," he said. "If I had put in 12 or 14 hours on legislative business and enjoy some entertaining in the evening and it's disclosed, it's up to the public to decide whether that's acceptable or not."

Kirk Torgensen is one of two deputies who advise Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and fill in him for him when he's absent. Torgensen received four tickets to the University of Utah-Utah State football game on Sept. 29. He said he never used the tickets and wasn't aware they came from a lobbyist.

He said a friend who is a lawyer for 1-800-Contacts, Joe Zeidner, said he had extra tickets to the game and that he didn't suspect they were part of a lobbying effort.

"He didn't contact me in a lobbying capacity. I don't see him as a lobbyist. We've been friends for a while and done some things socially together. He said he had extra tickets. It wasn't in the context of Joe Whoever, the lobbyist from 1-800 Contacts," Torgensen said.

The lobbyist report was filed by Jay Magure, a lobbyist for 1-800-Contacts. Torgensen said he had not heard Magure's name before being contacted by The Associated Press.

The financial disclosure reports come at a time of increased ethical scrutiny of state workers.

Huntsman's executive order issued in February says, in part, "confidence in government increases when State employees make decisions based upon the best interests of the public at large, without influence by those who may seek special favors and without regard to personal gain."

Huntsman's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said the executive order does not apply to Shurtleff's office because he is elected.

"We know that other public officials determine the appropriate policy for their offices," she said.

Torgensen was one of three public officials listed on 1-800 Contacts financial disclosure form. In the past three months Magure also spent nearly $140 on contact lenses for Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, and $100 on food and drinks in Philadelphia for Bramble. Sandstrom did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Bramble said Magure ate most of the sushi the two ordered while discussing American Legislative Exchange Council business, for which they both serve on committees.

"Jay likes to eat a lot of sushi, and as I recall, I think we got charged a bar tab for drinking Diet Coke," he said.

When Republicans agreed to disclose which lawmakers received tickets to athletic events, it exempted everything other than professional or collegiate events.

Becker said if his colleagues won't ban gifts to public officials, they should at least close loopholes for disclosure.

"If we're going to have a disclosure requirement it should be meaningful. And to eliminate from disclosure the biggest percentage of gifts from lobbyists to legislators because we're not including meals defeats the whole purpose of disclosure," he said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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