Yesterday, WFAE looked at the lack of ethics laws governing romance between lobbyists and lawmakers. The story grew in part from a national project called the State Integrity Investigation that examines government ethics. Today, another story sparked by the investigation examines the North Carolina law that bans lobbyists from giving legislators gifts. As Tanner Latham explains, that law has exceptions that some argue give lobbyists unfair influence.
Before 2006, there were no restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers. After several scandals, though, an ethics law was passed. And on one hand, it is very strict about banning those kinds of gifts. Perry Newson is the executive director of the North Carolina State Ethics Commission. He says that anything of monetary value is prohibited.
Perry Newson: Do you remember Mint Juleps? Are you too young to remember those?
Tanner Latham: The drink?
PN: No, no. They were little green mint candies that we used to get.
TL: Oh, okay.
PN: They were two for a penny.
TL: Right, right, right.
PN: Two for a penny.
TL: So they were less than a penny.
PN: Less than a penny. So, theoretically, one Mint Julep would be gift, because it is something of monetary value. But on the other hand, there are exceptions to that law.
Here's an example: So, it's not okay for a lobbyist to buy lunch for a legislator. That's clear. But it is okay for a lobbyist to buy lunch for groups of lawmakers, even all of them.
Halifax Mall is a large green space on the General Assembly grounds. And it's a popular spot for luncheons like these sponsored by the North Carolina Forestry Association. They have pitched a few large white tents out here, the kind you might see at an upscale wedding. Inside, the long tables have lunch spreads.
The tents are buzzing with legislators and their staffs and about 100 members of the forestry association. Ashley Faircloth is the group's president. "Anybody who wants to come can come regardless of their political views related to forestry," says Faircloth. "And the ones that are not pro-forestry, we try to change their minds while they're here."
The group says the whole event cost them $12,000. And it looks to have paid off in the form of access. Association members are sitting down with lawmakers eating sandwiches. On the outside of the tents is another group looking in. They are in Raleigh to protest a bill that would legalize the controversial fracking method of drilling for natural gas.
It was an eye-opening experience for the group's Anne Ringland. "It's not only the lawmakers who are getting the lunch and the free information," says Ringland. "It's the staff. And when they're talking informally, that's where they'll get a lot of information, too." She had hoped to connect with lawmakers by just showing up at their doors. Or catching them in the hallways. But by that point in the day, she says they had only talked with two legislators.
"The idea of hosting something for them," she says. "I wouldn't even know where to start with that."
Representative Rick Glazier believes luncheons like these are just fine. The Democrat from Fayetteville has been a leader in lobby reform and likes that these events are transparent. "And so I'm not opposed to anything being held by any association out on the lawn," says Glazier. "My problems are when they're not public events. And when the access becomes clearly a benefit to some and not a benefit to the public."
These public events were a result of the 2006 lobby reform law. Those reforms received an A in a nationwide report called the State Integrity Investigation. But the overall strength of the state's ethics received a C-, in part because lobby groups don't have to invite everyone at the same time. State law only requires that an open invitation be sent at least 24 hours in advance. Those invites are usually intended for people you don't want to come, Jane Pinsky explains. She's the director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
"So I might invite the people I want to be there two weeks in advance and the others the day before, two days before, knowing their schedules may already be full," she says. There isn't any big piece of forestry legislation that's a hot topic, but there's a time when there will be. And when that happens, introductions won't be necessary.