Will legislators ever eat lunch in this town again? Not on the record: New law requires lobbyists to report meals worth $15 or more that they buy for members of the General Assembly.

October 25, 1995|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

It's enough to give a Maryland legislator heartburn.

Once he could enjoy a simple cabernet and chateaubriand with a lobbyist and not worry about the voters finding out. But no more.

Thanks to his own ethics reforms, the folks back home now can pull up a chair, figuratively speaking, every time a lobbyist spends at least $15 on him.

Beginning next month, lobbyists must reveal the names of those who accept their hospitality, be it food, drink or (since Oct. 1) football tickets. Although disclosure laws have existed for years, loopholes have allowed lobbyists to spend more than $700,000 a year on lawmakers and barely name a single name.

Now the new laws are thrusting their traditions into the spotlight, and both sides are predicting upheavals in Annapolis' $14 million-a-year lobbying industry.

"It's criminal. You can't go to the Maryland Inn and get a crab cake sandwich with a legislator. There ought to be a law against that!" said Gerard E. Evans, 39, one of the top two lobbyists in town.

Not surprisingly, both restaurateurs and lobbyists are looking for creative ways to restore the comfort of privacy in this new world order.

One up-scale restaurant in the shadow of the State House is considering opening for breakfast because it is easy to stay below $15 on that meal.

Some lobbyists predict they will entertain less often.

Mr. Evans, for one, is swearing off dinners and some lunches with legislators altogether. The reason?

"You cannot find a decent meal in Annapolis for $15," he claimed, at least at the places he patronizes.

As an experiment, he and a reporter tried to have lunch for less than $15 each at the elegant Treaty of Paris restaurant in the historic Maryland Inn, a favorite of lobbyists and legislators.

Mr. Evans got off to a bad start by ordering the house white wine ($3.50), making the $12.95 crab cake sandwich he wanted out of the question.

He settled for the salad bar, crab soup and a soda, bringing his total, plus tax and tip, to $15.56 -- a bit over his self-imposed limit.

While a $15 lunch is possible, he said, a nice dinner at that price is out of the question.

Of course, Mr. Evans was reminded, he can spend as much as he likes on legislators' meals, provided he reports it to the State Ethics Commission.

"I'm not going to put anyone on a list," he replied.

That's because many legislators are afraid of the public reaction if their names turn up too often -- or even at all.

Undoubtedly the information will become campaign fodder for their opponents, Mr. Evans said. "Every candidate in Maryland is going to be sifting through those lists to see who was naughty and nice," he said.

James J. Doyle Jr., the dean of the lobbying corps, said, "Legislators are very nervous and unhappy if they ever appear on a report because if constituents read the guy was wined and dined by Jim Doyle they conclude he's in Jim Doyle's pocket -- even though it isn't true."

The new law is causing some concern among restaurateurs, who depend on legislative entertainment to keep business steady during the slow winter months.

"It's going to cause some hardship for the industry," said Joseph J. Hardesty, owner of Middleton Tavern and O'Brien's restaurant.

At Harry Browne's, "It will probably cut into our dinner business," owner Rusty Romo said. "We're going to do some creative things, like maybe opening for breakfast," he said, or creating an early bird dinner priced under $15.

Annapolis does have inexpensive places to dine, including a deli and a cafeteria a short jaunt from the State House.

Still, no one is predicting that those establishments will be overrun with lobbyists and politicians. The culture of fine dining runs deep here, even among those of modest tastes.

Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis doesn't dine with lobbyists often, but when he does, he said with a laugh, "It's going to cost more than $15 because I'm not going to McDonald's."

Lobbyist Joseph A. Schwartz, a regular at Harry Browne's, where a crab meat sandwich bears his name, said he will spend more time meeting with lawmakers in their offices or over coffee. He said he also expects politicians to begin turning down his occasional offers of tickets to the Orioles or the symphony, because those too must be reported.

TTC "I think legislators will have a tendency to say no where they didn't before," Mr. Schwartz said.

Some legislators said they will be more likely to pay for their own meal when dining with lobbyists. The state reimburses them for up to $30 a day for food during the 90-day session.

The new law has its limitations. It leaves untouched the almost nightly legislative receptions held by interest groups at restaurants and hotels in the capital area. An enterprising lawmaker in search of free, nondiscloseable food can continue to make a "meal" out of the canapes, cheese and celery sticks served there.

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