The scandal is what's legal

June 23, 1996|By BARRY RASCOVAR

EVERY YEAR, lobbyists report earning millions to wine and dine -- and press -- state legislators in Annapolis. And every year, I write a column decrying the excesses. So here is my annual screed -- or scream -- on lobbyists and legislators, money and influence.

Anyone who thinks lobbyists don't earn fat fees by gaining all-important access and influence is naive. It is a sad fact of life in government. No, it's not on the level of Colombia drug cartels buying themselves presidents, cabinet ministers and entire legislatures, but it is an insidious influence in Maryland nonetheless.

The rich can buy the best lobbyists, with the most State House leverage. That's why they usually make out so well.

Jack Kent Cooke is proof of that. He has spent $1.2 million in the past two and a half years to get state backing for a football stadium. He shelled out $327,000 to just one lobbyist in the last session. And he spent plenty to move his team's summer training camp from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Frostburg -- the home district of the speaker of the House of Delegates.

In essence, Mr. Cooke bought himself state approval -- and $72 million for Redskins Stadium. The Barry Rascovar

Frostburg move put Del. Casper Taylor on the Cooke cheerleading team. Hiring lobbyist Gerard Evans made sure Senate President Mike Miller was on board.

Still, Mr. Cooke's $327,000 payment to lobbyist Evans is an all-time record here. What do you do to earn such a staggering amount?

Dear friends

Call it influence. Mr. Evans is among Senate President Miller's dearest friends. He also has a long history with Parris Glendening. The governor's ex-chief of staff in Prince George's County is an Evans law partner. Mr. Evans co-chairs the new foundation raising funds for the governor's mansion -- including money for portraits of Parris and Francis Anne Glendening. No doubt his clients will be generous donors. With that type of access, is it any wonder Mr. Evans often gets his way?

Mr. Evans isn't the only lobbyist with such contacts. Ingratiating yourself with legislators and top executive officials is the name of the lobbying game. Often that means shoveling tons of campaign contributions from clients their way.

It would be instructive to see how much money Mr. Evans' numerous clients shell out to support the re-election of state officials. Or to take the top ten lobbyists this year and trace their clients' financial support for candidates in the 1994-1998 election cycle.

It is not all the lobbyists' fault. They are pressured by legislators -- from the top down -- to purchase tickets, and sell tickets to clients to expensive fund-raising events. Legislators deny there is a quid pro quo on bills, but they're not fooling anyone.

Freedom to speak

Lobbyists enjoy First Amendment protection. Writing a law restricting those activities is extremely difficult. Besides, there is a legitimate need for lobbyists to argue the pros and cons of issues and to do detailed research legislators are too busy -- or too lazy -- to do themselves.

The question is how close a relationship this should be. Officials are becoming increasingly dependent on lobbyists to buy their fund-raising tickets. The doors to their offices are always open to big campaign supporters. Giving a lobbyist a few votes seems to many lawmakers an easy way to say thank you.

That's the kind of corrupting relationship politicians should fear. There's no way to draw the line. It becomes a slippery slope.

And big money is heading into Maryland. Mr. Cooke's lobbying expenses are chicken feed alongside the gambling community, which spent $757,000 this year without seeing any return on that investment -- yet. The industry wants slot machines at race tracks and casinos statewide. Next year, these companies will invest even more money. By the end of the 1998 elections, their spending could be out of sight.

No one in power seems alarmed. Certainly not the Big Three -- Messrs. Glendening, Miller and Taylor, who all depend on lobbyists to pad their campaign coffers. Certainly not most legislators, who also see lobbyists as cash cows for campaigns.

Where will it end? Probably with outright corruption. It has happened all too often in Maryland's sordid political history.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 06/23/96

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