State Lawmakers Take (and Take and Take) Gifts From Lobbyists

Members of the State Legislature left the cocoons of their home districts on Jan. 5 to hear Gov. George Pataki’s State of the State speech and begin work on the first legislative session of the new century. The annual ritual seemed to offer something fresh and invigorating, for the turn of the calendar brought in several well-publicized new measures, such as a controversial health-care finance law that will extend medical insurance to a million New Yorkers.

One very important aspect of legislating life, however, has resisted the millennial urge to change. Just like in the 20th century, an army of lobbyists escorted the legislators to the gray, frozen state capital, and restaurant owners throughout Albany drooled in anticipation of all those tabs the affable lobbyists will pick up for their hungry friends, the state’s lawmakers.

Yes, despite a much-hyped law designed to curb the power and influence of Albany’s lobbyists, Assembly members can still count on being wooed over lunch or dinner, sometimes just hours before they cast votes on issues that are extremely important to the check-grabbing lobbyists. Indeed, some Assembly members won’t pay for a meal in Albany from now until the end of the session in late spring. And, despite the lobbyist crackdown that Mr. Pataki signed into law in late December, all of this will be perfectly legal.

It didn’t have to be that way. Albany suffered its biggest lobbying scandal in decades last year, when papers released in conjunction with, of all things, Minnesota’s lawsuit against big tobacco revealed that at least 115 New York legislators had accepted largesse from Philip Morris Companies in excess of the state’s limitations. And that takes some doing. In Albany, a state lawmaker can take $75 in goodies a day from a lobbyist; members of Congress can accept no more than $99 a year from lobbyists.

Press coverage of the Philip Morris affair seemed to embarrass legislative leaders, who represent an institution not held in particularly high repute, anyway. Editorial writers demanded action. And so, in mid-December, the Republican-controlled State Senate unanimously passed a bill outlawing free meals and cutting the gift limit to $25 a day. Of course, there were a few loopholes in the legislation-members of legislators’ families could still get gifts, legislators still could be flown out of state by special interests, and, oh yes, business owners-as opposed to their registered lobbyists-could still take Senators out to dinner.

Critics said the bill was designed to protect the life style of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican of upstate Troy who is very friendly with several Albany-area businessmen who remain free to ply him with Dom PĂ©rignon and beluga caviar, if they so desire. Nevertheless, good government groups hailed the Bruno-authored bill as a step forward.

Mr. Pataki, however, was not happy with provisions in the Bruno bill requiring lobbyists to disclose the identities of the government agencies they are lobbying-an obligation that’s been on the books for years in New York City. And the Democrats who control the Assembly were apoplectic. For years, they had presented themselves as reformers who would love to change the culture in Albany and would have but for the dastardly Republicans in the State Senate. With the Bruno bill, the Democrats had been beaten at their own game. They were furious. “They’re fighting to the last dessert,” said Assembly member Alexander (Pete) Grannis, Democrat of the East Side, who, almost alone among Assembly members, supports comprehensive lobbying reform.

And so, on Dec. 22 in the wee hours of the morning, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, with Mr. Pataki’s blessing, passed his own version of a new lobbying law. It significantly toughened penalties for violating regulations, and, for the first time, it gave regulators the power to randomly audit lobbyists’ disclosure statements. But the Assembly bill ignored the Senate’s $25-per-day limit on gifts from lobbyists. “It’s disgusting,” said Erik Joerss, the director of lobbying for Common Cause-New York. “They snuck in the middle of the night and passed a sham bill.”

A week later, Senator Bruno, facing a New Year’s Eve expiration of the old lobby law, reluctantly instructed his members to pass the Assembly bill. But, with his feet firmly planted on moral high ground, he said his members would voluntarily abide by a gift ban of $25 a day.

Quick! Nobody’s Looking!

Because the downstate media tend to ignore the goings-on in Albany, state lawmakers can pretty much get away with whatever they want. The only weapon good government groups have is embarrassment, and they thought the revelations that Philip Morris was freely handing out tickets to the Indianapolis 500 and the U.S. Open at the same time New York was lagging behind other states in antismoking measures just might inspire a bit of shame.

But among some legislators, the belief that they are entitled to freebies runs deep. Assembly members and senators earn $79,500 per year plus stipends. Many practice law on the side, as their lawmaking duties are considered a part-time job. Still, many believe that they are not compensated in accordance with their importance, so the gifts and dinners help soothe their hurt feelings. And they resent the suggestion that all the freebies look a bit unappetizing when viewed from the real world.

Take, for example, a dinner that took place 13 months ago in Albany. An hour after the Assembly voted itself a 38 percent pay increase, its Democratic leaders commandeered the entire second floor of Odgen’s restaurant, a wood-paneled 1902 building just down the hill from the State Capitol. The party consisted of more than a dozen lawmakers, including Speaker Silver, Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman of Syracuse and Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Eve of Buffalo, along with Assembly members Herman (Denny) Farrell of Manhattan, Clarence Norman of Brooklyn and Roberto Ramirez of the Bronx. The latter three also happen to be the chairmen of their respective county Democratic Party organizations.

The tab was paid by lobbyist Brian Meara, a longtime friend of Speaker Silver who collected $214,500 in fees and expenses from Philip Morris in 1998. Mr. Meara’s other big clients are Donald Trump and the Life Insurance Council of New York.

There is absolutely nothing illegal, then as now, in the practice of eating filet mignon or Norwegian salmon on a lobbyist’s tab, so long, of course, as you keep your meal to under $75, which is not hard to do in Albany.

“It’s absurd on its face,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “If you’re in court, and your attorney says the attorney on the other side just took the judge and jury out to dinner, you’d be pretty worried.”

But the Assembly leadership doesn’t see it that way. “The issue is whether you allow a level playing field to run for office,” said Pat Lynch, a spokesman for Mr. Silver, when The Observer asked her about the meals. “Unless you deal with the high cost of television advertising in campaigns, anything else is Pollyannish.”

“You can’t win on this issue-even though it’s not real-because integrity can’t be legislated,” said Mr. Farrell.

And indeed, though Mr. Meara won some battles and lost others in the months following his dinner for the legislators, his perceived ability to cozy up to his friend the Speaker has more than tripled his business since 1991, before Mr. Silver took over the Assembly.

So What’s the Problem?

The lawmakers Mr. Meara took out to dinner seemed shocked by the notion that the dinner bought any kind of special access. “We deserve it,” said Mr. Norman of the meal. “No legislation was discussed,” he insisted. “It was just a bunch of friends getting together for dinner. Everyone has access to us. There’s no effect on our decisions.”

So when they showed up to vote on Mr. Silver’s diluted lobbying bill on Dec. 22, 1999, after many of them had had their names printed in The New York Times for accepting free gifts from Philip Morris, legislators were furious at the suggestion that they could be bought with a $50 meal. Even mavericks like Assembly members Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, both of Manhattan, insisted that a gift ban without campaign finance reform was irrelevant. True, perhaps, but that view doesn’t take into account the understandable perception that lobbyists who wine and dine legislators have more access and clout that ordinary citizens.

And it doesn’t take into account the undeniable fact that Albany is remarkably lax in regulating relations between lawmakers and lobbyists. California, the only state with higher legislative salaries than New York, bans gifts of any kind by lobbyists, and 25 states significantly restrict such gifts.

And so, for the better part of 1999, good-government advocates prowled Albany in search of support for better lobbying regulations. In the end, little changed. Lobby law reform, Albany’s last piece of business in the 20th century, stumbled into the new century.

“And for what,” Mr. Grannis said. “So an Assembly member could get 10 or 20 free meals? For 500 or a thousand dollars, we fought to preserve the status quo?”