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Under the influence 

Colorado's legislative process is being infiltrated by lobbyists bearing gifts

click to enlarge GREG CRAVENS
  • Greg Cravens

Slick-dressed men and stunning women amass outside the guarded glass doors of the state Senate on a hectic February morning.

They belong to an army of lobbyists, which outnumbers elected politicians at the state Capitol by a ratio of better than 5 to 1. They represent more than 2,000 industries, governments and other interests from Big Tobacco to lung doctors, casinos to Christian groups.

It is their job to convince lawmakers to kill the bills their clients oppose, and to pass the ones they support. Lobbyists who earn their pay will play a role in crafting, and may even write, some of the bills that become law.

Almost daily, these lobbyists shower gifts upon the politicians they seek to sway. They often give candy, flowers, sports and theater tickets. Sometimes, they simply give cash.

Colorado is one of five states where lawmakers can accept gifts without limits, and lobbyists are among the biggest givers.

Beyond the guarded doors, on the Senate floor, Sen. Ron Tupa, a Boulder Democrat, tells his fellow lawmakers he fears the gift-giving is getting out of hand.

"The system is ripe for abuse," he says as he introduces Senate Bill 51.

The bill would ban cash gifts to lawmakers, who are allowed to accumulate unlimited amounts in office accounts, while limiting to $50 the in-kind contributions that mysterious groups may funnel through the accounts.

Tupa is met with grumbles, but the bill eventually clears the Senate.

He later says the bill is needed. It is one way to ensure that Colorado does not face the ethical turmoil of Congress in Washington, D.C., where federal investigators are unraveling what appears to be a massive bribery and ethics scandal involving "super-lobbyist" Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in January.

"That's the kind of thing that's on our minds," Tupa says. "We don't want Colorado to turn into that."

But there are signs of trouble.

The Independent has found that at least two lawmakers actively solicited large, unregulated cash contributions to their accounts last year in an effort to bulk up their staffs.

And Sen. Deanna Hanna, D-Lakewood, resigned last week amid the state Senate's first-ever ethics investigation. She allegedly sought financial "reparations" from the Colorado Association of Realtors for supporting her opponent in the last election.

Tee times and theater tickets

It is unclear whether the scandals will end the cozy relationships some gift-giving lobbyists maintain with lawmakers.

Last year, Colorado lawmakers reported a total of more than $310,000 in cash, gifts, speaking fees and other perks, according to an Independent review of disclosure forms on file with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office.

Of that amount, $167,000 in cash and in-kind mailings came to 35 state legislators through their office accounts. Both of these types of gifts would be made illegal under Senate Bill 51.

Senators and representatives also accepted greens fees to private golf courses, like Kissing Camels in Colorado Springs. They relaxed in Vail, and at other ski resorts and spas. Several lawmakers were whisked away to Israel, courtesy of a special interest group.

They went to Denver Broncos and University of Colorado football games, and sat in box seats. They saw Denver Nuggets basketball for free. They took in shows like Phantom of the Opera and Wicked.

The gifts came courtesy of some of the 521 professional lobbyists registered at the state Capitol, who can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the $30,000 earned by lawmakers each year.

One of the state's most influential lobbyists, Steve Durham of Colorado Springs, earned $394,000 in 2005. Durham represents 35 clients, including the Cloverleaf Kennel Club in Loveland, the Colorado Private School Association, Qwest and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Durham provided several unspecified gifts to lawmakers in 2005, according to various disclosure forms. Asked why he gives such gifts, Durham responded, "I wouldn't know anything about that."

Expenditure forms reveal Durham sought to "discuss legislation" with lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, a Colorado Springs Republican, in December.

McElhany received $126 in unspecified donations from Durham. He also accepted $2,618 in travel costs to Israel from the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, making him one of El Paso County's top gift recipients.

McElhany did not return calls.

click to enlarge A sergeant-at-arms guarding the glass doors of the - state Senate accepts a business card from a lobbyist. - After reviewing it, he will slip the card through the crack - between the doors, where a second sergeant will carry it - to the senator the lobbyist wishes to speak with. - COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • Collan Fitzpatrick
  • A sergeant-at-arms guarding the glass doors of the state Senate accepts a business card from a lobbyist. After reviewing it, he will slip the card through the crack between the doors, where a second sergeant will carry it to the senator the lobbyist wishes to speak with.

In all, just 14 of the 100 lawmakers at the Legislature claimed no gifts last year.

"Big money talks'

In giving gifts, lobbyists hope to win face time to push their interests and causes, says John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor who spends two days a week at the Capitol monitoring his interns and lawmakers' legislation.

"You are peddling influence as a lobbyist," he says.

Lobbyists are particularly active in the weeks prior to January, when the legislative session begins. Legislators are allowed to sponsor five bills per session, and many admit they look to lobbyists for ideas.

Interviewed prior to the session's start in January, Rep. Richard Decker, R-Colorado Springs, told the Independent he planned to introduce a bill to crack down on interstate cigarette smugglers, who profit by selling cigarettes purchased in states with taxes lower than Colorado's. The black market for cheap cigarettes is chipping away at Colorado's tax revenues, he says.

But Decker could not provide details regarding how the bill would work.

"I don't know," he said. "I am running it for a lobbyist."

Asked which lobbyist, he responded, "I'm not at liberty to say, but he is someone who works for a tobacco company."

Decker has received campaign contributions and gifts from tobacco interests in the past. In 1999, he introduced a bill, which later became law, protecting domestic tobacco companies by banning certain imported tobacco products. That year, he accepted a $1,000 check from tobacco giant Philip Morris.

In 2003, Decker accepted tickets from Philip Morris to Love's Labour's Lost at the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

Interviewed again this week, Decker defended the practice of letting lobbyists write bills. "There's no conflict if you're in agreement with what the bill does," he said.

He also identified the lobbyist who wrote the bill: Ruben A. Valdez, who represents 16 clients, including Philip Morris.

Asked about the gifts and contributions he's received in the past from Philip Morris officials, and whether those represent a conflict now, Decker said he formally disclosed the contributions, as required by law.

Mike Benschneider, a lobbyist for Farmers Insurance, claims lawmakers frequently need lobbyists to help them write bills, because the topics in some bills are highly technical and require the expertise of people in the industry.

"They rely on us a great deal to tell them what's going on," he says. "They are only human. They can't know everything that is needed in the state ... Lobbyists quite frequently draft bills or amendments."

The process can spawn bitter clashes.

In 2003, Gregg Rippy, then a Republican state representative from Glenwood Springs, introduced a bill that dramatically altered the rights of homeowners seeking to sue homebuilders for major building flaws. Opposed by homeowners' associations, consumer advocates and the trial lawyers that represent them, the bill which passed capped monetary awards for defects, such as a home slipping from its foundation, at $250,000.

Rippy, a highway contractor, now confirms that the bill was written by a coalition of lobbyists from the homebuilders' industry, insurers and contractors.

"We had roundtable meetings before the session," he says. "Mike Benschneider, Steve Durham and others were instrumental in the original language. With their help, the bill was better."

Rippy says his goal was to seek expert advice for a subject he was already interested in. He says the bill aimed to keep the insurance rates of homebuilders from skyrocketing by clamping down on so-called frivolous lawsuits.

"It is the lawmaker's responsibility to know the bill and to be responsible for its consequences," Rippy says.

Running up to his re-election campaign in 2002, just prior to his meeting with lobbyists, Rippy received more than $15,000 in campaign contributions from homebuilders, realtors, mortgage companies, insurers, contractors and other such interests.

Freda Poundstone, a former Republican mayor of Greenwood Village, was among those who fought Rippy. She launched a failed ballot initiative in 2004 to undo the law. She says consumers were simply outgunned by industry interests and Rippy's campaign backers.

"I learned the Legislature doesn't represent the people," says Poundstone, who now lives in Castle Rock. "Big money talks. The people behind this bill had money and hired the lobbyists. We were trying to protect the homeowners, but they forced it through. It is a loss for consumers."

Lawyers and lobbyists were among the top givers to campaigns in the 2004 election. They contributed more than $403,000 of the $32 million that flowed into various state campaigns, according to the nonprofit Institute on Money in State Politics.

Other top givers were the insurance and real estate industries, retirees, civil servants and labor interests.

click to enlarge Sen. Deanna Hanna, D-Lakewood, announced she would - resign last week amid allegations that she asked for - reparations from a realtors group that endorsed her - rival in the 2004 election. - COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • Collan Fitzpatrick
  • Sen. Deanna Hanna, D-Lakewood, announced she would resign last week amid allegations that she asked for reparations from a realtors group that endorsed her rival in the 2004 election.

Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based group that closely monitors lobbying and campaign donations, says politicians are in dangerous waters when they work closely with those who give them gifts and campaign contributions.

"The danger is, they do the lobbyists' bidding," he says. "[Lobbyists' participating in writing bills] is a phenomenon that makes the average person's jaw drop. There are some good reasons for it, and there are some good reasons for it to stop."

Help wanted

Professor Straayer says he sees the big-spending groups playing a dominant role in pushing legislation. He doesn't, however, see their participation in writing bills as scandalous.

"The fact of life is that people who are smart organize," Straayer says. "People who have an economic stake organize. As a result, they are influential, but that doesn't mean there are smoke-filled rooms, chicanery and bribes. ... The group that isn't represented is the dispossessed and poor. They don't have a lobbyist."

For those who have qualms about the involvement of lobbyists in legislation, Straayer points to a safety net: the Legislature's staffers, whose job is to review bills for constitutional legality before they are introduced. Ideally, each legislator also would have their own full-time policy expert, and perhaps other staff, who would sift through the nuanced technicalities of hundreds of bills and constituent concerns each session.

But most Colorado politicians either have no staff or rely on student interns for help. And in an age of term limits, many longtime lobbyists are among the most reliable repositories of institutional memory, several lawmakers note. This makes senators and representatives more reliant upon and vulnerable to the suggestions of lobbyists, Ritsch says.

The lack of staff has come up in debate over Tupa's bill. Lawmakers say donations to office accounts can help them pay for staff and uncompensated expenses.

Letters obtained by the Independent show that some lawmakers openly solicited large cash contributions to their accounts in efforts to hire staff.

On May 23, 2005, Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, who had in 2004 reported no gifts, suddenly solicited supporters for cash. He wrote that he wanted to pay a full-time staff member to assist him.

"In order for me to do the things that I need to do to make Colorado the best place to live, work, and raise a family, your financial participation is critical," he wrote. "Any amount, $50, $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000, or whatever you feel necessary, would be greatly appreciated."

His letter stated he sought help with various policy initiatives, including tort reform. The effort garnered Wiens $20,590 in cash from an array of sources, including $500 from Farmers Insurance employees and agents and $100 from the American Insurance Association.

Rep. Anne McGihon, D-Arapahoe County, made a similar plea for a staffer and received $140 in contributions to her office account last year.

Wiens did not respond to calls seeking comment.

McGihon could not be reached for comment.

What about Amendment 27?

These unregulated accounts open the door to another problem. Donations can turn into de facto campaign contributions, because legislators are not required to report how the money in such accounts is spent.

Pete Maysmith, a lobbyist for and director of Colorado Common Cause, says the accounts could easily undermine Amendment 27, which seeks to keep big money out of elections. Voters overwhelmingly passed the amendment in 2002.

"You could see big contributions flow into office accounts and flow into elections, because there are no limits on the way the money is spent," he says. "The problem is that I could walk in right now, as could any lobbyist, and offer cash right before a key vote."

Another kind of gift has Republicans on the offensive.

The TrailHead Group, a political committee financed in part by Golden beer mogul Pete Coors, his mother, Holly Coors, and Denver oil baron Bruce Benson, has launched a telemarketing campaign accusing Democrats, including Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, of collaborating with a secretive group that last year provided in-kind mailings.

The mailing, from a group known only as Research and Democracy, makes Merrifield El Paso County's largest gift recipient ($11,167 in mailings). Merrifield claims he didn't ask for the gift and still doesn't know who is behind the group that gave it.

The group, whose backers have not come forward, gave more than $83,000 to 10 state Democrats.

The issue has garnered Tupa's bill the support of Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who last year vetoed the same measure.

For Merrifield, the situation is laced with irony. He says he opposes all gifts, and last year had introduced a bill limiting gifts that House members shot down.

He says he didn't introduce the bill again this year because he felt his fellow lawmakers lacked the political will to pass up the gifts they receive.

"People like those Nuggets tickets," he says. "They get angry about this debate. They think it makes them look like crooks, and say they can't be bought. My reply is, "Does the public believe that?' Why are they always offering those tickets to us, and not to Joe Six-Pack?"

click to enlarge Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, topped the - list of gifts recipients last year. He reported a mailing - worth more than $11,000 from a mysterious group he - says he didnt solicit. - 2006 COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • 2006 Collan Fitzpatrick
  • Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, topped the list of gifts recipients last year. He reported a mailing worth more than $11,000 from a mysterious group he says he didnt solicit.

Maysmith is pushing for a total ban on gifts, especially in the wake of the controversy surrounding former Sen. Hanna. He says the gifts create the appearance of a conflict of interest. He's hopeful leaders in the Senate or House will introduce a gifts ban.

But Tupa says there is a limit to how much legislators in Colorado are willing to rein in the gifts.

"One fight at a time," Tupa says. "With so many legislators receiving sports tickets and outings, I don't think that battle can be won."

deyoanna@csindy.com

...............................

Ka-ching!

El Paso County lawmakers reporting gifts, honoraria and other benefits in 2005
(listed largest amount to smallest)

Michael Merrifield $11,167 (D-House District 18)

In the form of a mailing, which he says he neither solicited nor saw beforehand, from a group known only as "Research and Democracy."

Larry Liston $2,855
(R-House District 16)

Includes $2,500 in cash from his mother, Claire J. Liston, which went into an office account, and $75 for a Denver Nuggets basketball ticket from a Qwest lobbyist.

Andy McElhany $2,618
(Senate minority leader, R-District 12)

A single contribution for a trip to Israel, courtesy of the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado.

Ed Jones $1,591
(R-Senate District 11)

Includes $1,116 worth of Denver Broncos club seats, courtesy of Colorado Concern, a group consisting of some of the state's most powerful business leaders.

Bill Cadman $971.86
(R-House District 15)

Includes $168.86 worth of golf, courtesy of Xcel Energy from Robert Roy Palmer, an Xcel lobbyist.

Mark Cloer $550
(R-House District 17)

Includes $500 in speaking fees to Health Strategies Institute, which runs substance-abuse clinics.

Keith King $540
(R-House District 21)

Includes $100 worth of golf at The Broadmoor, from the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, and $150 in golf at Red Sky Golf Club in Vail Valley, from the Colorado Association of Home Builders.

Doug Lamborn $341
(R-Senate District 9)

Includes a round of golf and breakfast at an undisclosed location, courtesy of Xcel Energy, and $80 worth of University of Colorado football tickets from the university.

Richard Decker $323
(R-House District 19)

Covers lodging at a Vail spa during a convention, from Colorado Counties, Inc.

Dave Schultheis $193.97
(R-House District 14)

Includes $18.97 for a dinner from a party he says he does not recall, and $75 for a golf tournament at Bear Dance golf club in Larkspur, from "various lobbyists."

Ron May $129
(R-Senate District 10)

Includes opening-day tickets to Colorado Rockies baseball from Qwest.

(Lynn Hefley, R-House District 20, did not report gifts.)

deyoanna@csindy.com

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