LOBBYISTS WINE, DINE LEGISLATORS FOR FAVORS
This is the third installment in a series examining the cycle of
influence in the state
Legislature - how campaign contributions,
lobbyist spending and personal financial interests
The care and feeding of the West Virginia Legislature does not come
In the past five years, lobbyists have spent more than $1
million on West Virginia's government
officials for meals, receptions
and campaign contributions, according to a computer-assisted
of lobbyist disclosure forms. Most of that spending goes to state
That money spent on meals, gifts and receptions does not buy votes
directly, said the Rev.
Nathan Wilson, lobbyist for the West Virginia
Council of Churches. "But it gets lobbyists into
legislator's office," he said. "It buys them access."
Some special-interest groups may have bought themselves more access
than others. Since 1996,
gambling lobbyists spent more than
$220,000. That is 66 times as much as anti-gambling
who spent approximately $3,333.
State legislators are asked to be experts in everything. One
day, they are debating electricity
deregulation, the next, whether to
tax barroom video poker machines. When they don't know much
issue, they look for someone nearby who does. Very often, that person is a
Larry Swann is a former legislator from Doddridge County who now
lobbies in several issue
areas, including gambling, health and
utilities. Swann spent the second-highest amount on
and gifts of any lobbyist since 1996, more than $37,000.
Swann helped sponsor receptions for legislators at the
Charleston Marriott, Embassy Suites and
Edgewood Country Club.
The money he spends on meals and receptions is for "relationship
building" between lobbyists,
the clients and legislators,
"You chat with people about baseball or football," he said. "There's
issues at those venues."
Wilson's group also sponsors a legislative reception, but the
only about $300.
"Legislators should be more in touch with their constituents.
But spending $10,000 to achieve
that goal is a farce," Wilson said.
Swann said that the meals and receptions do not give his clients an
unfair advantage, or take
away from the ability of the average citizen
to contact their legislature.
"The vast majority of legislators are open-minded and willing to
listen to all sides," Swann
But an environmental lobbyist thinks those personal relationships pay
off when legislators need
advice about a bill. Rick Eades, with
the West Virginia Environmental Council, said one story
difference in access that money can buy.
Eades remembers standing outside the Senate Finance Committee minutes
before they took up a
bill dealing with mountaintop removal. A door to
a side room opened, and he saw several
around a prominent coal lobbyist with a notebook in his hand.
"It was like football players around their coach," he said. "He was
When Eades approached the group, he said they drifted away. He
pidgeonholed one senator. "I
told him that we have opinions on this
issue too, but I only got 30 seconds with him," he said.
Coal, Oil and Gas, and Timber lobbyists have spent more than
$175,000 in the last five years,
while environmental lobbyists
John Hodges and Swann are first and second in lobbyist spending since
1996. Rounding out the
top five are: Michael Herron, Independent Oil
and Gas Association of W.Va., $32,127; Jim Bowen,
AFL-CIO, $29,764; and
Nelson Robinson, gambling, transportation and other business
Lobbyists spend money on more than just meals and receptions.
Some of the largest lobbyists
give campaign contributions to
candidates as well. For example, the biggest spending lobbyist,
reported giving $5,300 in campaign contributions to West Virginia
candidates since Jan.
1. Hodges spent more than $55,000 lobbying for
gambling, tobacco and business interests since
1996. Swann gave $1,550
in campaign contributions in the same period.
"How can they afford these large campaign contributions?" said Norm
Steenstra, a lobbyist
himself for Citizens Action Group, a nonprofit
organization in Charleston that works on various
reform issues. "What
is Larry Swann making? We don't know."
Other states require lobbyists to disclose much more information
than West Virginia.
For example, Maryland asks each group that lobbies its legislature to
reveal the total amount
it spends for salaries, overhead and other
expenses - not just meals and gifts.
Maryland also asks for lobbyist salaries - the top salary is more than
$1 million, while 79
lobbyists get more than $50,000 for their
Steenstra calls for similar disclosure of the total spending of
lobbyists in West Virginia.
In the end, nothing short of massive public action can challenge the
influence of big-spending
"It will take a groundswell of citizen involvement to change things,"
"Come November, citizens should vote for those legislators who
are protecting the interests of
all the people."
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.