published Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Wild Hog tradition sparks ethics questions

By Chris Joyner/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday lawmakers, lobbyists and friends will gather for the 50th Wild Hog Supper, a noisy meet-and-greet of feral hog and fixins that’s the unofficial kickoff for the Georgia Legislature’s annual session.

While most legislators view the dinner as a chance to renew acquaintances on the eve of the legislative session, the Wild Hog also represents the pervasive presence of lobbyists at the Statehouse. Even this quaint tradition now is paid for by them.

Formerly put on by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, the $15,000 event now is hosted by the Friends of Agriculture Foundation — actually a handful of lobbyists representing some of the state’s largest industries.

State records don’t indicate who runs the foundation or where it gets its money, though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was able to piece together some of that information.

The six lobbyists paying for the Wild Hog have interests to protect during the legislative session, and the supper is just the start of their spending. After the event, the lobbyists on the Friends of Agriculture board last year spent another $32,000 on dinners, tickets and events for lawmakers on behalf of their employers.

Unlike most lobbyist-funded events, the supper is one that anyone who buys a ticket can attend. But with all lobbyists spending $1.6 million annually to influence state officials, the Wild Hog is viewed by ethics advocates as a symbol of how business is done at the Capitol.

“It’s both a celebration of the kickoff of the legislative session as well as the starting gun for the lobbyist spending,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group.

Lawmakers and lobbyists dismiss the suggestion that the Wild Hog has political implications merely because lobbyists for important industries are paying for it and lawmakers get free tickets.

“It is a time-honored tradition that kind of has taken on a life of its own. It’s more than just lobbyists,” said Kevin Perry, lobbyist for the soft drink industry and a board member of the Friends of Agriculture Foundation.

“These are average citizens that come up from across the state for this tradition and have been doing it for 50 years,” he said. “You see very few [lobbyist] badges. The folks that come are folks that get an invitation from their local legislator or somebody because they have been involved in the legislative process for years. I think it is unfair to say that it is a lobbying event.”

Lobbying has been a hot topic at the Capitol since a lobbyist scandal in 2009 led to then-Speaker Glenn Richardson’s resignation. A Mason-Dixon poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Georgians want ethics reform, with 72 percent supporting a cap on lobbyists’ gifts. Georgia has no legal limit on how much lobbyists can spend on legislators. Every surrounding state has a spending limit or an outright ban on lobbyist gifts.

Perry’s group is part of a coalition calling for the legislature to limit lobbyist gifts.

From the right, Debbie Dooley of Georgia Tea Party Patriots said the spending by lobbyists at the Capitol creates a “perceived environment of corruption.” On the left, the Green Party of Georgia has proposed to hold a protest supper of beans and rice outside the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot where the Wild Hog will be held.

The dinner originated as a reunion of a few dozen power brokers. The Department of Agriculture put on the dinner for the first four decades of its run, with Tommy Irvin co-hosting the event with the chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees. Over the past decade the dinner has been organized by the Friends of Agriculture Foundation, which does one thing: host the Wild Hog.

Records for the foundation are spotty. State ethics records say only that it spends money on the Wild Hog Supper, not who runs it or where its funding comes from.

According to records at the secretary of state’s office, the foundation was incorporated in 2008 to promote “agriculture and agriculture-related activities.” State records show the foundation was dissolved last September, though it still puts on the Wild Hog.

IRS records place the foundation at the address of the Georgia Development Authority in Monroe, Ga., and list GDA Executive Director David Skinner as the foundation’s chief executive. Skinner said he had been the foundation’s treasurer until he resigned about two years ago. Skinner had trouble coming up with a contact for the foundation, finally offering tobacco lobbyist Don Cargill.

Lobbyist Kevin Perry confirmed that he and Cargill are foundation members, along with Georgia EMC lobbyist Bill Verner; Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association lobbyist Stony McGill; Connell Stafford, senior counsel for lobbying firm Troutman Sanders Strategies, whose clients include Bank of America, Coca-Cola and Verizon Wireless; and lobbyist Chandler Haydon, whose clients include AT&T, agriculture and biotechnology giant Monsanto, and several health-related industries and associations.

Together they split the roughly $15,000 cost of the soirée, though none of the records indicate where that money comes from.

Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, is entering his 32nd year in the legislature and has been to every Wild Hog during his tenure. That the dinner is paid for by corporations with an interest in what goes on under the Gold Dome is natural, he said.

“I don’t think there is any lobbying that goes on at this thing,” he said. “But it is an expensive deal, so bigger interests in Georgia — like Coca-Cola — would be asked to pick it up.”

Hooks said he would support placing spending caps on lobbying gifts, but the Wild Hog does not fit the bill. “I don’t think a plate of barbecue would be that terribly expensive,” he said.

Bruce Dixon of the Georgia Green Party said the Wild Hog is influence peddling dressed up in folksy clothes.

“It’s not so much about this particular event, but it’s about the grip that lobbyists and corporations have on the process; they have a bigger voice than you and I have. I live in Cobb County, and my neighbors don’t have the money to throw a dinner and have half the legislature come.”

Contact Chris Joyner at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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