published Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Political parties: Special interest spend $390,000 on lawmaker events

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Dick Williams

NASHVILLE -- Doing the state's business is a serious job, but Tennessee lawmakers also were wined, dined, entertained and educated at receptions and other events during this year's session, filings show.

State Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance records show groups spent at least $389,724 on 59 events for lawmakers since January.

The Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association was the top spender, shelling out $23,498.75 for a March 9 reception at downtown Nashville's Sheraton Hotel.

By contrast, the Tennessee Occupational Therapy Association spent $360.36 to man an informational table in a legislative hallway on March 30.

Efforts to contact Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association CEO Mike Vinson were unsuccessful Tuesday.

A spokesman for a government watchdog group lauded rules that make such spending public and ban wining and dining of individual lawmakers.

"It's clear that special interests will spend money to try to influence the process," said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause. "Of course, the positive thing is it's now at least disclosed and people can look at it, if they will."

The legislature convened Jan. 12, and telecommunications giant AT&T hosted a $19,892 gala at the AT&T tower on Jan. 13, featuring what its invitation said was an "open bar and heavy hors d'oeuvres."

The Friends of Coal Tennessee threw a "Cocktail Hour" at the Cabana, a trendy nightspot. The price tag for the April 7 event was $1,194.24.

The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry on March 3 spent $15,941.33 on its annual reception. Wayne Scharber, the group's vice president on environmental issues, said chamber members get briefings from the organization's experts.

"Then, whenever you get all of the legislators coming over for your reception and so forth, you can glad-hand them and talk further about those points."

Mr. Scharber dismisses any notion that elected officials are swayed by dinner or drink.

"No, no, no, no," he said. "That's not what it's about. You can look at our score card in a couple of weeks and see we didn't buy any votes."

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she attends some receptions and events, although she spends more time in the evenings poring over upcoming bills.

"I may have gone to three," Rep. Favors said. "I try to go if there's something where there's people from home coming. Like Volkswagen came up and did something."

Several other members said they do the same thing. Some shun events completely.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said, "I don't like going to them (receptions) that much unless I know there's going to be somebody from Chattanooga."

Volkswagen Group of America reported spending $916.39 on April 7 for a continental breakfast and "ride-and-drive opportunity" featuring its TDI clean-diesel vehicles.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton Medical Society, meanwhile, invited local lawmakers to a Feb. 11 dinner at Table 2 in Chattanooga, spending $1,344.88, or $35.20 a dinner.

Medical Society Executive Director Rae Bond said the dinner allows the society to outline goals and concerns, as well as letting doctors and lawmakers get to know each other.

"This isn't an elaborate event by any means," Ms. Bond said.

BIG SPENDERS

Top spenders on legislative receptions and other events:

* Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association: $23,498.75

* AT&T: $19,892

* Tennessee Hospital Association: $18,636.93

* Insurors of Tennessee: $18,159.85

* Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association: $16,172.00

* Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry: $15,941.33

* Tennessee School Boards Association: $15,188.10

* Local Chambers of Commerce, Tennessee Economic Council and state Economic and Community Development Department: $14,877.71

Source: State Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance

On Feb. 10, records show, lawmakers could have eaten their way through the entire day at events sponsored by various groups.

* Breakfast: Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug, & other Addiction Services. Cost: $962.02.

* 11:30 a.m., Tennessee Economic Development Council luncheon. Cost: $6,882.51.

Evening receptions: Tennessee Press Association, $6,315.10; Chambers of Commerce/Department of Economic and Community Development, $14,887.71, and Tennessee Bankers Association, $10,075.87.

While the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association was the top spender on entertainment, the group didn't get one of its top priorities this year. That was a Bredesen administration-backed provision to allow Chattanooga's EPB and other municipal electric systems to offer broadband outside their current service areas.

It was fought by AT&T as well as the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association, which spent $9,094.07 on two events.

Events tapered off at the end of April, which was the planned end of the session.

The only event since then was a May 19 breakfast discussion hosted by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a libertarian-style research institution. The group's report is pending.

Lawmakers said Tuesday they hope to wind up their work today and adjourn.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Special interest reform blocked

Times Editorial: A distorted legislative agenda

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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