The Maryland ethics commission has closed a loophole in state law that allowed lobbyists to avoid disclosing how much money they spend on selected legislators.
Until the July 15 ruling, some lobbyists attempted to get around a legal requirement for reporting which legislators they entertained at receptions -- and the cost of wining and dining each of them -- by inviting the entire General Assembly.
State law requires that lobbyists report giving gifts worth more than $15 -- including food and drink -- to individual lawmakers.
"There's a lot of latitude here, but there's a point where you go beyond that latitude," said John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission. "This is an attempt to draw some lines."
The question arose after two dozen Maryland legislators traveled to St. Louis last year for the summer meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, and a lobbyist avoided having to disclose which and how many of them he entertained there on behalf of a client.
Lobbyist Gary R. Alexander, who asked for the ruling by the State Ethics Commission, knew that most members of the Maryland legislature were not traveling to Missouri, but he nonetheless invited all 188 senators and delegates to a corporate reception there.
The commission found that Alexander's interpretation of the law "places form over substance and allows inclusion of the magic words that 'this is an all-members invitation' to make an event into an all-members special event, even where reason or actual knowledge suggest it could not possibly be so."
The panel concluded in its three-page opinion that "this invitation cannot be viewed as an invitation to all members that would qualify for special-event treatment and reduced disclosure."
Alexander, the second highest paid lobbyist in Annapolis behind Gerard E. Evans, already had filed a lobbyist activity report disclosing the cost of the event and noting that 17 Maryland legislators attended. But the matter of listing the individual legislators by name was moot, because the cost per legislator was figured to be less than $15 and outside the reporting requirements.
Nevertheless, Alexander asked the commission for clarification because he maintained that a strict interpretation of the law did not allow for geographic or other limitations on the so-called "all-member invitations."
Alexander, however, was not alone in his interpretation of the law.
Ira C. Cooke, another of the highest paid lobbyists, invited all members of the General Assembly to a reception and night of dog racing, simulcast racing and gambling at Tri-State Greyhound Park in Charleston, W.Va., during a meeting there last week of the Southern Legislative Conference.
While West Virginia is closer than Missouri, such an invitation still would not get around the disclosure requirement, according to the commission's opinion, because only a limited number of legislators are authorized to attend such events by the Senate president and House speaker, mostly because of the cost.
O'Donnell refused to discuss the specifics of any case, but did say that lobbyists such as Alexander and Cooke would be expected to list gifts to legislators in their next activity reports.
Pub Date: 8/02/97