@NCCapitol

Despite laws, NC legislators still ask lobbyists for money

Posted August 21, 2012 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated August 21, 2012 9:00 p.m. EDT

— Political fundraising requests continue to flood the in-boxes of North Carolina lobbyists, despite state campaign finance laws that make such donations illegal.

At least one lobbyist recently got this email from House Speaker Thom Tillis' campaign, asking for $4,000 contributions by Sept. 14. At the bottom, a disclaimer says the campaign can't take money from lobbyists, but it asks them to "pass the information along to any interested parties and recommend support where appropriate."

Likewise, a fundraiser invitation from House Democrats also went out to lobbyists with a similar disclaimer.

"It feels like a shakedown, really," said Bob Hall, director of government watchdog Democracy North Carolina.

Such requests pressure lobbyists to push their clients to donate to lawmakers, Hall said.

"It's enormous pressure on someone who's doing business with someone else. If you want to continue that relationship, you've got to pony up the money," said Hall. "it’s exactly the kind of pay-for-play system that we tried to clamp down with lobbying reform several years ago".

Under reforms passed in the 2006-07 legislative session, lobbyists cannot donate to or collect checks for campaigns themselves. But they can still advise their clients' political action committees to do so.

Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, was one of the authors of the 2006-07 campaign finance reforms that were meant to take lobbyists out of the fundraising business. Before the reforms, she said,  lawmakers in both parties expected lobbyists to do their fundraising for them.

Ross said the legal changes have curbed the worst of the abuses. "The idea was to wipe that out, where you wouldn’t have a lobbyist who would basically become part of the finance staff for a campaign."

But, Ross added, you can't fix everything. "You can't outlaw money in politics. You just can't do it. The Supreme Court made that very clear," she said. "Raising money from PACs and lobbyists is something that both parties do, and the money goes to the party in power. That’s just the nature of what happens."  

Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw said the recent email was meant for PACs, not lobbyists, but he couldn't say who might have received it.

"There may have been some lobbyists on (the list)," Shaw said. "Lobbyists are the only point of contact for some of these PACs.

"The law as it's written tells us what to do, and we do it," he continued. "If people think the law needs to be stricter, then that's a conversation we can have."

Raleigh attorney John Burns, who has done fundraising for Democrats, agreed that the emails sent to lobbyists are legal.

"You cannot accept money from lobbysists. You cannot solicit money from lobbyists. And lobbyists cannot donate money to campaigns. That’s the clear line that the statute draws," Burns said.

"But there’s nothing in that statute that says you can’t circulate an invitation to people, some of whom happen to be lobbyists, as long as you include at the bottom of that a disclaimer that says if you’re a lobbyist, we’re not seeking your money," Burns added. "As long as an email or an invitation has that, it probably complies with the law." 

"Lobbyists in North Carolina work hard to ensure we comply with the laws that govern our profession, and in our state, lobbyists are prohibited by statute from making campaign contributions." said Amy Fullbright, president of the North Carolina Professional Lobbyists Association.

Hall said he thinks the pass-it-along requests are just a way to get around the law.

"It's really just like, 'Here's your bill. Here's the invoice for doing business in the General Assembly. It's going to cost you money,'" he said. "That's not the way the system should work."