The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 27, 2013

Lobbyists spend $39,000 wining, dining officials

By Brock Vergakis
The Associated Press

CHARLESTON — Expensive meals, hotels and cocktails were among the freebies that West Virginia lawmakers and state employees got from lobbyists over the past four months, according to recently filed financial disclosure reports.

The reports, which were due Sept. 16, show lobbyists spent nearly $40,000 on state officials and their family members between May 1 and Aug. 31, which is traditionally a slow period for lobbying activities. Those figures also include a handful of campaign contributions, although lobbyists only have to report the amount of the contribution, not whom they gave it to. Political candidates are required to disclose who donates to their campaigns in separate filings.

West Virginia prohibits lawmakers from receiving gifts worth more than $25, but no law limits how much lobbyists can spend on food, drinks and travel, which constituted the vast majority of their spending.

Lobbyists also don’t have to disclose where they bought meals or break down how much of the tab was for alcohol. Lobbyists are supposed to specify what the subject of their lobbying was. Some said no lobbying occurred at their dinners; others gave vague references to general conversation. Specific references to what topics were discussed over meals are uncommon. The West Virginia Ethics Commission says as long as a lobbyist fills out another part of the report that says what their ‘lobbying activity’ is, then the lobbyist is in compliance. That box can be filled out with vague information, such as business or education.

While wining and dining by lobbyists usually drops off significantly following a legislative session, the disclosure reports show there was still plenty of it going on in the early days of the summer. The biggest spender in the past four months was lobbyist Nelson Robinson, who represents Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming. Robinson spent about $4,500 on state officials, with nearly all of that coming at a weekend event at the West Virginia Derby. The event included a VIP reception, a cocktail hour and a derby dinner.

Those who attended included Department of Natural Resources Director Frank Jezio-ro, Lottery Commissioner Bill Clayton and Racing Commissioner Bill Phillips. There were also a dozen state lawmakers on hand, along with Senate Clerk Joe Minard.

Unidentified representatives of Secretary of State Natalie Tennant’s office and Assistant Attorney General Kelli Talbot were also there for at least some of the events. Nearly every government official there also had at least one unidentified guest, according to the report.

Although not required for the time period, the report also shows that Robinson picked up a $70 tab for food and drinks for Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin at a restaurant called Villa Romana in April.

It wasn’t the only meal Tomblin was treated to by a lobbyist. In May, Tomblin and his wife had a $240 tab paid for by Phil Reale, a lobbyist for the gaming, oil and gas, and prescription drug industries, among others. The report did not specify where the food and drinks were purchased.

While some lawmakers had low-cost meals in the range of $10 paid for by lobbyists, it wasn’t uncommon for the price tags for others to be significantly higher. Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso and Sen. Sam Cann, both Democrats, each had $90 worth of meals and beverages paid for by Jerry Brown, a lobbyist for Summit Engineering. In August, Prezioso, Cann and Sen. Bob Williams, also a Democrat, each had a nearly $70 tab paid for by Michael Basile, a lobbyist for the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce, Chesapeake Appalachia and the American Association of Professional Landmen, among others.

When a large number of lawmakers were invited to a dinner, the price tag per lawmaker or state official was often much higher than when only one or two were taken out. In July, FirstEnergy lobbyist Sammy Gray, Chris Marr and Rob Casto divided up a nearly $1,500 tab for 10 state lawmakers, or about $145 per person, at the upscale Charleston restaurant Laury’s. At Laury’s, entree prices range from $18 to $40, according to its online menu.

On some occasions, lawmakers also had hotel rooms paid for by lobbyists when speaking at their events. The West Virginia Coal Association paid $783 for lodging for Democratic House Speaker Tim Miley, who spoke to the group at The Greenbrier hotel.

There are more than 300 registered lobbyists in West Virginia. So far, they’ve spent a combined total of nearly $325,000 this year.

— Online: West Virginia Ethics Commission http://www.ethics.wv.gov/Pages/default.aspx

Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis