Is Lawmakers Gift-Giving a Problem

Is Lawmakers Gift-Giving a Problem

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John Daley Reporting Republicans and Democrats, Senators and Representatives, leaders and the rank and file -- disclosure reports filed over the past few years show dozens of veteran Utah lawmakers have accepted gifts.

Lawmakers are allowed to accept a gift of any value. But if a gift is worth more than fifty dollars--their name must be identified in reports lobbyists file on Capitol Hill. We compiled a list and found more than 60% of lawmakers had taken at least one gift.

Some lawmakers like golf, for others this past year U of U football was a hot ticket, and of course Jazz basketball always goes over big. Last year lobbyists showered $144,000 of freebies on lawmakers, or about $1500 per lawmaker, though some say they don't accept any gifts.

One longtime government watchdog says that money buys lobbyists access average citizens don't generally have.

Claire Geddis, Government Watchdog: “To be able to have the kind of access that kind of money allows, a lobbyist is phenomenal in getting their bills passed.”

But a common refrain from lawmakers is that gift-taking is rare, and their constituents rarely complain.

Sen. Parley Hellewell, (R) Orem: “I think it's a small group and it's the media that pushes this.”

The vast majority, roughly 90 percent of gifts, are valued at less than 50 dollars. We decided to track the names of lawmakers who have accepted gifts from lobbyists worth more than 50. We checked disclosure reports from the past few years and found gift taking appears to be widespread.

Leaving out all new lawmakers who were not on Capitol Hill before this year, we found in the House that 34 of 57 incumbents have accepted at least one 50-dollar plus gift. That's 60% of House incumbents.

In the Senate gift-taking appears even more common. Again, not counting any new members, we added up 17 of 24 incumbent members, meaning more than 70% of Senators who aren't new members are listed as taking gifts.

Combining both houses we found 51 of 81 veteran lawmakers have accepted gifts worth more than 50 dollars, or 63% of the Utah legislature. On the gift-taking list compiled from those lobby reports were Republican leaders, House Speaker Greg Curtis, Senate President John Valentine, Majority Leaders Pete Knudson and Jeff Alexander, Majority Whips Dan Eastman and Stephen Urquhart. Also included are Democratic Senate leaders like Mike Dmitrich, Ron Allen, and Gene Davis, and Represenative Brent Goodfellow.

Greg Curtis, (R) House Speaker: “Usually when I'm asked to go there it's because they want to talk to you. They want to have access to you. So you're responding to their invitation.”

Sen. Mike Dmitrich, (D) Minority Leader: “If I'm bought off for a Jazz game, kick me out of here please. I just don't think it's an influence factor. It's more of a friendship factor. When you've been around as long as I have, lobbyists are friends.”

Ron Allen, (D) Minority Whip: “If someone wants to pitch me for an hour and a half while I'm eating lunch, I don't think I should have to buy that lunch.”

The gift list has considerable variety. We found lobbyists treated lawmakers to a performance of the Messiah, bowling, a fishing trip at a conference in Alaska, and a trap shooting event at the Magna Gun Club. A favorite perk is a ticket to a Jazz game, usually courtesy of a handful of lobbyists like Stan Lockhart, a lobbyist with the Micron Corporation. He declined to speak with us for this story. We found 40 incumbent lawmakers over the past few years have accepted Jazz tickets, that's nearly half of those lawmakers who were not newly elected.

Lawmakers say they worry the public perceives a problem, but still ethics reform is unlikely this year.

Sen. Peter Knudson, (R) Majority Leader: “I believe that no amount of money will sway a person who is honest and has a high degree of integrity. But it does leave the impression in the minds of many that you can be bought.”

Government watchdog groups--who have pushed for changes for years wonder if it'll take a scandal to bring changes on Capitol Hill.

Tony Musci, Common Cause of Utah: “The problem is that Utah has among the weakest ethics laws in the nation, and that means the system is ripe for abuse.”

One lawmaker who declined to be interviewed says we're beating a dead horse. There are many lawmakers whose names we never found on a disclosure report, including Republican Representative Ben Ferry, two champions of ethics reform, House Minority Leader Ralph Becker and GOP Senator Greg Bell, also Democratic Senator Patrice Arent.

In all we found thirty veteran lawmakers never listed as taking a gift worth more than fifty dollars.

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