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State lawmakers accept gifts from lobbyists, ardently defend practice

click to enlarge Grabbing freebies: from left: Rep. Keith King flew to - Taiwan courtesy of the Republic of China last year; - Gov. Bill Owens nearly doubled his $90,000 salary; - Sen. Ed Jones got a golfing holiday in Vail. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • Grabbing freebies: from left: Rep. Keith King flew to Taiwan courtesy of the Republic of China last year; Gov. Bill Owens nearly doubled his $90,000 salary; Sen. Ed Jones got a golfing holiday in Vail.

A football game, a round of golf, an expensive dinner, a hotel stay and trip to Taiwan.

A lifestyle this lavish might be out of reach for some, but not for state legislators making $30,000 a year.

These items are among the tens of thousands of dollars in unregulated handouts that poured into the state Capitol last year from the oil and gas industry, telecommunications business, banks, universities, special interest groups and their lobbyists.

"It's seen almost as an entitlement," said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors state politics. "It's a subtle, but insidious way of influencing, and ultimately perverting, the process."

But many lawmakers from Colorado Springs think otherwise and defend the gifts they received while opposing legislation that would limit what they can accept in the future.

Travel, golf, tickets and meals

Reaping the most in gifts was Gov. Bill Owens, according to records he recently filed with the Colorado Secretary of State.

He nearly doubled his $90,000 salary, collecting $55,100 for eight speeches -- many given to right-wing think tanks -- and at least $4,900 in various tickets, not counting undisclosed use of passes for skiing and to Six Flags Elitch Gardens.

Owens also received more than $26,500 in travel, including a $760 plane ticket from Republican oil and gas company owner Bruce Benson, to attend President Ronald Reagan's funeral in California.

"He reports every year as he should by law," said Mark Salley, a spokesman for the governor, adding that he does not regard such gifts as innappropriate.

Among the long list of lawmakers receiving gifts in 2004 are 10 of the 12 politicians representing El Paso County.

Combined, they received roughly $11,300 worth of gifts or $1,130 each.

Yet the values of the gifts varied widely, skewing the average.

Rep. Mark Cloer, for example, reported accepting two meals worth $126.40 while Rep. Keith King received more than three times the average, taking $3,767 in gifts, including a trip to Taiwan paid for by the Republic of China.

King, the former House majority leader, also accepted several golfing excursions, paid for by business entities such as the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

He was incensed by Maysmith's assertion that gifts mar the democratic process. They've never prejudiced his votes or fouled legislative activities, he said.

"There's not that cheap a people down here," he said. "I'm not convinced that legislators are that easily bought."

The trip to Taiwan, he added, was part of a Republican leadership trade mission attended by several other lawmakers.

Republican Doug Lamborn, former Senate majority caucus chairman, was among those on the trip. He brought his wife, Jeanie, according to disclosure forms.

The senator also took two other trips -- one to Canada sponsored by Suncor Energy, which is developing a large oil field in Canada, and another to Washington, D.C., to "review legislation" courtesy of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax group.

Other Springs-area legislators accepting gifts included:

Sen. Ed Jones, R: $950, including basketball tickets, a dinner and golfing holiday in Vail paid for by the Colorado Retail Council.

Sen. Ron May, R: $110 in college basketball tickets from a banking group (May gave the tickets to interns).

Rep. Richard Decker, R-Fountain: $99 for one night at the Pueblo Marriott from that city's chamber of commerce.

Republicans Rep. Lynn Hefley and newly-elected Rep. Larry Liston were the only politicians from the Springs area not reporting gifts.

Rep. Bill Cadman, a Republican, received $621 in meals, hockey and theater tickets. He ate with Steve Durham, a lobbyist representing more than a dozen organizations, including Qwest, the Colorado Private School Association and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

"We discussed various pieces of legislation," Cadman said, responding by e-mail because, he said, he was too busy for an interview. "Mr. Durham represents numerous groups that have constituencies in my House district."

Meals, which can range from oatmeal to steaks, are "standard lobbying fare," said Republican Sen. Andrew McElhany, who received $50 in movie passes and $577.93 from the Colorado Association of Homebuilders to give a speech about tort reform in Las Vegas.

Unlike some legislators, McElhany didn't report meals because he says the law doesn't require it. He added that items like movie tickets help busy legislators relax, particularly if they are far from home, working in Denver for extended periods.

A call for limits

Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, who last year accepted $30 worth of office space from a supporter, has introduced House Bill 1176 to limit gift giving.

"If there's no way anybody can be influenced, why give the golf tickets?" he said. "If all constituents are equal, then why are some trying to give things to us?"

But he has had a hard time finding support. Last week, the bill was pulled from consideration. This Tuesday, a committee voted 6-5 to send the measure to the House floor, Democrats voting for and Republicans voting against. Before the vote, lawmakers dropped the bill's ban on speaking fees and a provision prohibiting legislators from receiving fees for political consulting. And a proposed cap on sports tickets was raised from $100 to $200. Some Democrats, like Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald of Golden say gifts don't create problems. Fitz-Gerald has even taken a few herself, although none in 2004.

She said Merrifield's bill appeared to be a "solution looking for a problem."

But her House counterpart, Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, says measures like Merrifield's are needed. In 2004, Romanoff accepted no gifts on principle and in the past has failed in efforts to pass legislation similar to Merrifield's.

"I don't think you need all the trinkets and trash to pad your income," Romanoff said.

Others differ. Merrifield's bill is "overly bureaucratic," Cadman said. To McElhany, current law is working fine.

"There's no disinfectant more powerful than sunshine" he said, referring to the state's current public disclosure process, or "sunshine law."

Common Cause's Maysmith fears citizens don't have the time to research disclosure documents.

"The problem is these gifts are coming from lobbyists and organizations that really want something in return," Maysmith said. "When was the last time a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry called you up and said, 'Let's go see the football game?'"

Michael de Yoanna

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