Raining gifts on legislators

Lobbyists: Sports tickets, lavish receptions and dinners, gifts to charities designed to win votes.

July 10, 1999

HOW do you "buy" votes in the Maryland General Assembly? Not with straight-cash transactions. It is done more indirectly, by lavishing key lawmakers with attention, gratuities and anything that will make them feel indebted to you.

Example: Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano spent $5,580 on sports tickets for just three legislators: city Delegates Tony E. Fulton, Nathaniel T. Oaks and Talmadge Branch.

Come Oct. 1, such gift-giving will be illegal under a new state law. But Mr. Bereano's actions show how some lobbyists gain friendly allies for their clients' proposals.

Example: Lobbyists Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff spent $14,162 on a reception on the last night of the General Assembly session in April. Two years earlier, they had spent $1,200 just on bagels for hungry lawmakers trying to wrap up their last-day's work.

Indeed, information gleaned from a lawsuit involving the Evans-Stierhoff firm shows just how much some lobbyists spend to get on legislators' good side.

In 1997, for instance, the Evans-Stierhoff firm spent $222,000 on entertainment; $23,000 on receptions; $3,800 on flowers and gifts; and $45,000 in donations to legislators' favorite charities.

That last practice also will be banned Oct. 1. Public pressure forced legislative leaders to push through an ethics reform bill this year.

But many lawmakers resisted changing a system that allows them access to hard-to-get sports and music tickets, free gourmet meals and solicitous attention from obsequious lobbyists.

When legislators convene again in January, they're in for some shocks: no free meals from lobbyists (not even a cup of coffee), no gifts, no sports tickets and no steering of charitable contributions to lawmakers' charities.

Still, creative lobbyists will find ways to curry favor with legislators. That's why it's important for a task force on lobbying to come up with more suggestions to end this unhealthy coziness. New ground rules must be set that let both sides do their jobs, but without the appearance of an incestuous relationship.

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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