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Lobbyist Money Help  

DeLay and Abramoff loom over legislative session

April 06, 2006
By: Jason Rosenbaum
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Although DC Lobbyist Jack Abramoff and US Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, were major players in national politics, their steep downfall from power is resonating in Jefferson City.

Several Missouri lawmakers credit the national publicity surrounding DeLay and Abramoff with pushing changes in laws regulating lobbyist influence and campaign finance into the forefront of public discussion and onto the General Assembly's agenda.

DeLay's decision to step down from his post as House Majority Leader and resign from the House of Representatives came after his indictment that alleges that he illegally helped steer campaign contributions to candidates in Texas.

He, along with several other lawmakers, also drew fire for accepting expensive meals, Scottish golfing trips and seats in luxury skyboxes from Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in March to defrauding Native American trips and corrupting public officials.

With Abramoff headed to jail and DeLay out of his Congressional leadership job, Missouri's GOP leaders reacted.

Several months after the scandals broke, the Missouri Senate debated and passed a bill sponsored by the Senate GOP leader - Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph -- to ban lawmakers from taking tickets to concerts from lobbyists, curtail meals, travel and entertainment to most legislative caucuses and effectively dismantle district committees used to funnel thousands of dollars into state campaigns.

The House Ethics Committee has approved a similar bill sponsored by the House GOP leader - Rep. Jack Dempsey, R-St. Charles.

Shields said neither one man nor one event prompted the legislation to change lobbyist disclosure and campaign finance regulations. But he acknowledged his bill would not have garnered as much coverage without the Washington scandals, and added that the extra attention helped pass the bill.

"To me, DeLay was part of a much larger emphasis on the issue," Shields said. "But I think that will yield good results in Missouri in terms of passing a strong ethics bill."

Soon after passage of his bill in the Senate, Shields resigned from all of the legislative caucuses to which he had been a member. Caucuses have been used by lobbyists to hide the names of individual legislators receiving lobbyist gifts, entertainment and meals.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said the DeLay scandals raised the awareness of the public toward improprieties within the legislative process and provided a catalyst for the Missouri legislature to take action.

"It behooves us all to make sure that our house is in order to try to allay the public's fears of the influences on us and how we operate," Bray said. "Because of the antics of the folks in Washington, we have to be more careful about what we're doing here."

As lobbying legislation moves through the General Assembly, some political observers voiced doubt whether the events that triggered the move to reform will have a lasting impact on the political climate.

"The changes enacted are marginal," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "This system elected politicians into public office. Why mess with success?"

While Sabato said scandals involving DeLay and Abramoff have made voters receptive about the subject of lobbying reform, he added the issue would affect few elections, unless a lawmaker has been implicated in wrongdoing.

"It's the politicians that tend to be in the middle," Sabato said. "The voters tend not to be."

Richard Hardy, an associate professor of political science at MU, said regardless of the party in power, governmental ethics become an issue when a major political figure becomes embroiled in scandal.

"Public office is a public trust, and when that person signs their name on the dotted line to run for public office, they have an obligation to do everything they cant to be above the board," Hardy said. "You can't make everybody love you, but you got to be real careful how you play the game."

But Hardy said reforming that game can be difficult, because the issue itself is complex. He also said there are so many avenues where lawmakers can receive campaign contributions and meals, travel and entertainment from lobbyists.

As a result, Hardy said attempts to reform the system legislatively end up becoming "window dressing."

"The way the election laws is that, unfortunately, many of them are like Swiss cheese -- there's a lot of holes in them," Hardy said. "That's the problem, when people try to circumvent the law."

In Missouri, for more than a decade, the emphasis in campaign finance has been limits. Now lawmakers are arguing that's not worked and are now campaigning for transparency without boundaries.

House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said some people believe if a bill doesn't allow a legislator to take more than a cup of coffee from a lobbyist, then substantive ethics reform has failed.

"It's in the eye of the beholder," Bearden said.

Bearden said rather than placing more rules and more limits on campaign finances, there should be more transparency.

"People right now, the reason they don't trust the system is because they don't know where the money's coming from," Bearden said. "Our system in Missouri helps in creating that perception."

He added the process would become more clear to the public if limits were removed for contributions to candidates and instead placed on district committees.

Sabato said even that course of action would not change the nature of elections.

"They're always going to get money to candidates," Sabato said. "It doesn't matter what the rules are."

But Hardy said such a course of action would make it easier to find out where money is coming from.

"I think that I would rather see individuals giving money where you can identify who they are rather than these amorphous, amoeba like organizations that camoflauge political contributions," Hardy said.

While he agrees with certain elements of Shields' bill, he said the General Assembly should be careful to address problems, not perceptions.

"A lot of times because it is a political nature, we're trying to address perceptions, we're trying to people feel better, trying to make the press write good stories about we're doing," Bearden said. "And we may not have effected good policy, we may not have fixed the problem, but we may have addressed the perception."

But Hardy said credibility is the coin of the realm, and when politicians like DeLay live on the edge, they're going to eventually fall.

"If you're really are good at what you do, if you are clear and concise, you will never have to worry about money," he said. "If you to do it through trickery or subterfuge, you're asking for trouble."