Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY --At some of the most exclusive restaurants in Oklahoma, you'll find lobbyists paying for legislators' meals. They're even picking up the tab at the Palm's hotel in Las Vegas, at Thunder games and college bowl games.
During the first six months of this year, lobbyists spent $89,844 on gifts or meals for lawmakers, their staff and other state employees. That's up 26% for the same time period last year.
"Since you work in that environment everyday, a lot of those folks become your friend," said lobbyist Bobby Stem, Capital Gains.
Stem takes his friends out to eat and pays the bill. At those dinners, Stem says he's trying to educate legislators about his clients' needs or about a bill he's working on, for them. He will also negotiate what he should change, to gain the support of the legislator.
"They may say, well, I read it like this, well, what if I switch these four words, oh well, I'd be for it, those are things that are difficult to have as you're walking down the hallways," said Stem.
Under the law, each company or association can only spend $100 a year on a legislator. At the same time, legislators can only accept $100 from each group. We found, 11 legislators accepted more than $1000 in meals and gifts during the first six months of this year.
|Top 25 Highest Lobbyist Gift Recipients|
"As long as it's within the legal bounds of the Ethics Commission, I don't see any problem with it," said Representative Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs.
Representative Kouplen accepted just over $1,000. He is currently paying $100 back because the N.R.A. spent more on him than is legally allowed. He says the meals are about education, not buying a vote. He insists, they're like business dinners and if lobbyists didn't pay, more than likely, he wouldn't go.
"My vote is not for sale," said Kouplen. "If people think that someone is so shallow that you could buy their vote for the cost of a dinner then you probably shouldn't be up here in the first place."
Representative Sam Buck's total is $1,402.18. He too is paying $100 back to the N.R.A. He said this really is about his constituents.
"Your constituents depend on these clients that these lobbyists represent," said Representative Sam Buck, D-Ardmore.
He said that the he's trying to gain knowledge to make a more informed vote.
"I'd have lobbyists from both sides of an issue ask if I'd go out to dinner with them and visit with them so they could explain their side and what their client's all about," said Buck.
But, State Representative Jason Murphey questions the practice. He says there's no reason to accept gifts or meals from lobbyists, ever.
"Those relationships will absolutely influence the way legislators will vote and the bills that legislators will sponsor," said Representative Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie.
Murphey posted on a sign on his door telling lobbyists not to leave him gifts or anything of value.
"Access to legislators should not cost the constituents anything and it certainly shouldn't go to the highest bidder," said Murphey.
Murphey's not the only one not comfortable with the gift giving. Ethics Commissioner John Raley also has a problem with it. Two years ago, Raley pushed to stop this all together. Instead, commissioners reached a compromise to reduce legislator's yearly gift limit from $300 to $100 per company or association. But still, Raley thinks it should be zero.
"I feel in my heart of hearts, this is ethics 101, Amy, it just doesn't seem right," said Raley.
Representative Murphey encourages other legislators to stop accepting gifts and dinners. He also wants you to contact your lawmaker, if you disagree with this practice.