Buying Capitol Souls

October 21, 1990|By Barry Rascovar

THERE HE WAS, caught by a candid camera, reaching across a table to accept a handful of $100 bills, then stuffing the $2,000 into a back pants pocket. It was all his, thanks to his willingness to vote in favor of a bill legalizing pari-mutuel betting.

That scene, repeated again and again on FBI videotape, has rocked the South Carolina legislature. Ten lawmakers so far have been indicted; five have pleaded guilty. Many others seem certain to be ensnared as the probe continues.

This is ''Bubbagate,'' a state house scandal in Columbia, S.C., with implications that could easily be felt in Annapolis. Lobbyists bribing legislators; legislators eager to be bribed. Lax ethics laws; campaign finance laws filled with gaping loopholes. A good ol' boy political network in which lobbyists and legislators party together, play together and conspire together.

The growing influence of lobbyists in state capitals holds the potential for enormous mischief. The more money lobbyists are paid for influencing state government decisions, the more is spent by lobbyists to ingratiate themselves with legislators. Soon, the lobbyists and legislators become inseparable.

A lobbyist's best weapon in the 1990s is the political action committee. A client can pump wads of money into a PAC, letting its lobbyist decide how to hand out this cash. In the last four years, PACs contributed $2 million to House and Senate incumbents in Annapolis.

The same thing is occurring in Washington, where Rep. Roy Dyson, in a mere five weeks, collected $100,000 from PACs.

Were these lobbyists and their clients contributing this money out of the goodness of their hearts?

Were they expressing support for candidates who best espouse the highest qualities of public service?

Not on your life. They were buying influence, plain and simple.

Sometimes the links between politician and lobbyist are so blurred that it raises major ethical questions.

Take the case of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Not only did the lobbyist for Maryland doctors award Mr. Miller $21,000 in PAC money, but the lobbyist became Mr. Miller's chief solicitor and organizer of a massive fund-raiser in Baltimore that took in $350,000. The lobbyist is also a top official of the state Democratic Party.

Do you think Mr. Miller will slam the door on this lobbyist if he wants entree? Do you think Mr. Miller will lead the charge against the doctors on issues they vehemently oppose?

Having the Senate president in your corner -- or just being able to contact the president when the going gets tough -- gives the lobbyist a supreme advantage.

That's also the reason lobbyists are anxious to throw money into Gov. William Donald Schaefer's campaign -- well over a quarter-million dollars in PAC aid. Lobbyists believe the governor is far more likely to give their case extra consideration if he knows they've been solidly on his side.

But the real problem is at the lower level of State House politics, where lax ethics and campaign finance laws open the doors to potential abuse.

The ordinary delegate or senator is far more susceptible to the entreaties of lobbyists, some of whom are constantly dangling enticements -- free VIP seats for important sporting events, free use of vacation hideaways, help on all sorts of personal problems, legal counsel and as much financial assistance as possible in winning re-election. All for the price of a legislator's soul.

That's the way the lobbying game is played these days in Annapolis. And along the way, legislators manage to enrich themselves -- indirectly, of course.

Take the case of Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore, who has put himself on the cutting-edge of PAC technology.

Mr. Fulton not only has a re-election committee dunning lobbyists for contributions, but he's established his own PAC to draw in even more money from lobbyists. He then doles this money out for whatever purposes he desires.

So far that has meant financing the purchase of two vans for himself, repairing the roof of a row house he owns and repairing his computer. All in the name of re-electing Tony Fulton.

This could start a trend, with every incumbent creating personal PACs so lobbyists can contribute more directly to the comfort and aggrandizement of elected officials.

What's developing in Maryland is not far removed from the unseemly videos of South Carolina. The rewards for legislators who align themselves with deep-pockets lobbyists are getting bigger and bigger. The line between right and wrong is getting fuzzier and fuzzier.

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