Lobbyists pick up $400,000 tab to entertain politicians Bill to ease requirements on reporting attendance at functions is killed


ANNAPOLIS -- Lobbyists spent nearly $400,000 during the 1995 General Assembly session wining and dining groups of state lawmakers, according to a computer analysis of State Ethics Commission records.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce shelled out more than $18,500 for one event at a fancy hotel. Days later, the Maryland Bankers Association spent close to $19,000 for a similar event.

Receptions and banquets where lobbyists rub shoulders with groups of lawmakers -- called "special events" under the state's ethics law -- are common fare in Maryland's capital during the annual political season. Lobbyists say they hold them to build goodwill and meet new lawmakers.

The events became an issue this year after Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a D-Prince George's County Democrat, introduced a bill to excuse lawmakers from reporting their attendance at lobbyist functions when the guest list includes the full Legislature, all members of a committee or an entire delegation.

Currently, lawmakers must report attending any event where they receive more than $25 in food or other amenities.

The Senate passed the Collins measure, but on Friday, the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee killed it.

Mr. Collins said he and Mr. Miller had introduced the bill because some lawmakers were confused about the $25 limit, and didn't want to be accused of wrongdoing if they made a mistake.

"We just thought it would be a good way to clarify the issue," Mr. Collins said, adding that the law was designed to monitor one-on-one relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers and not gatherings where the two mingle in groups.

He said he was satisfied with the House committee's action. "If the confusion persists," Mr. Collins added, "we'll introduce the bill again."

Under the proposed change, special events would still have shown up on reports that lobbyists file semi-annually with the ethics commission. Those reports, however, don't tell which lawmakers attend which events.

And that bothered Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, the state chapter of the national public-interest lobby.

"It appears the members of the Legislature want to party with impunity," Ms. Povich said after the Senate passed the measure. "They want to go to these events and not be held accountable for attending them."

Ms. Povich praised the House committee for killing the bill. "They voted to protect the public interest," she said.

Del. Clay C. Opara, D-Baltimore, who is serving in his first legislative session, said he understood public concern about lobbyists wielding undue influence over lawmakers.

"But once I got down here I realized the rituals are innocuous in nature," he added. Special events are vital for coalition-building, an important aspect of lawmaking, he said. "It allows people to grab hands and work better together."

But Ms. Povich said lobbyists host hold the events because they hope to influence legislation.

For that reason, she said, "It's in the public interest to know who is spending what on whom."

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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