Lobbying firm spared no expense

Money: A lawsuit against prominent Annapolis partners unveils details of their spending to influence legislation and secure clients.

June 22, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland | Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Around the State House, it is no secret where to go to find hard-to-get tickets to such events as Washington Redskins games or Rolling Stones concerts -- the full-service lobbying firm headed by Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff.

From 1995 to 1997, the firm handed out or sold more than $87,000 worth of tickets to football, baseball and basketball games, not to mention the Preakness, according to an analysis of the lobbyists' financial records.

The big spending on tickets was business as unusual for the lobbying firm, which spares little expense to secure its corporate clients and win legislative victories.

Over the three-year period of 1995 through 1997, the Evans firm spent almost $400,000 on the care and feeding of state legislators and clients, according to an analysis of the lobbyist's financial records.

The documents, made public in a 1997 lawsuit filed against the firm by a disgruntled former partner, detail the lobbyists' spending on entertainment, gifts and contributions to politicians and their favorite charities.

Dollar by dollar, the records provide a unique snapshot of big-time State House lobbying at a time when federal authorities are investigating Evans and Stierhoff and their relationship with state Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore.

Federal authorities are trying to determine whether the Evans-Stierhoff firm persuaded Fulton to introduce legislation to help the lobbyists generate business.

While that investigation proceeds, the civil court documents reveal the inner workings of a firm that showed no reluctance to spend what it takes to be successful.

Consider these figures culled from three years' worth of the firm's records filed in the court case:

In 1997 alone, the firm spent almost $250,000 on entertainment and travel.

From 1995 through 1997, Evans was reimbursed $187,000 for expenses -- meaning he was spending, on average, more than $1,000 a week. While drawing a $42,000-a-month salary, he had expenses of more than $18,000 in one month.

During the three-year period, the lobbyists gave at least $148,000 to nonprofit groups, many of the gifts at the request of elected state officials who backed the causes.

The partners treated themselves generously, paying for an expensive membership at an Anne Arundel County country club, tennis court time and membership in the Center Club in Baltimore. The firm spent thousands on flowers, cigars, liquor and food, and it covered the $1,700-a-month cost of a Porsche for Evans -- on top of the partners' six-figure salaries.

The firm occasionally hired the politically connected. The campaign manger for a state senator was paid $54,000 to help with community relations on the Washington Redskins' new stadium in Prince George's County, while the daughter of a key General Assembly committee chairman served a 1997 internship with the firm, earning $2,200.

Evans and Stierhoff did not return phone messages seeking comment last week. They have not responded to interview requests since The Sun disclosed in May the federal probe of their dealings with Fulton.

But advocates of stricter ethics laws say details of the firm's free-spending ways are disturbing.

"I think it's a pretty obscene indictment of what goes on at the State House," says Bill Hogan, director of investigative projects for the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog agency that focuses on ethics and public service.

"This firm bestows benefits on lawmakers, who then bestow benefits on the clients. It's a pretty easy thing to understand."

`Certainly looks tawdry'

Adds Donald F. Norris, professor of policy science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County:

"When it gets to the amounts you're talking about here, it has the appearance of impropriety. This stuff may not be illegal, immoral or improper, but it certainly looks tawdry."

Such assessments have become more common in recent years as the size of the Annapolis lobbying corps, and its influence on the legislative process, have soared.

During the past 20 years, total lobbying fees and money spent to lubricate the social and legislative machinery during the Assembly's sessions have tripled -- to more than $21 million a year.

Chastened by disclosure of lobbying excesses, legislators have tried fitfully over the years to rein in the profession with tougher ethics laws.

A task force created last year to rewrite state ethics laws proposed banning legislators from soliciting charitable gifts from lobbyists -- saying the practice creates inappropriate pressure on both lobbyists and lawmakers.

Among the task force members, the loudest voice supporting the ban belonged to Stierhoff. The General Assembly, over the objection of many members, enacted the ban on solicitations this year. It goes into effect Oct. 1.

Another task force is to undertake a full-blown study of state lobbying laws this year and propose more changes to the Assembly next year.

Superb political pedigree

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