Telegram & Gazette: Reformers Target “Pay-to-Play” Ethos

“One of the biggest problems with our current campaign finance system is that campaigns are often funded by the exact same people who are looking for specific favors, whether it is contracts or tax breaks or specific legislation,” Mr. Eldridge said.

by John Monahan
April 8, 2009

BOSTON —  When a lobbyist or state contractor writes a check or bundles campaign donations to help a candidate, people might expect that the donor is hoping for favorable treatment in return.

And while elected officials routinely maintain the donations come with no strings attached, the growing amount of money flowing into campaign accounts, frequent violations of campaign reporting laws and recent scandals involving alleged influence pedaling by ranking legislative leaders are breeding new concerns about a “pay-to-play” culture on Beacon Hill.

The arrest and resignation of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson in an FBI sting over alleged cash payoffs for a Boston liquor license last fall and investigations into allegations that lobbyists improperly sought help from former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi for ticket resale legislation and multimillion-dollar state computer contracts have heightened concern over public integrity in the Legislature.

The House responded March 26 with initial approval of tougher bribery penalties, more campaign law enforcement powers for the secretary of state and new reporting requirements for lobbyists.

But several of the biggest proposed changes, an outright ban on campaign donations and solicitation by lobbyists and a prohibition on donations from state contractors, a so-called pay-to-play ban already adopted in seven other states, was set aside by House leaders.

Legislation to ban pay-to-play politics could still be taken up by the Senate when it acts on the House ethics reform package, and the sponsor of a pay-to-play law here, state Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, is making the case that the House reforms and others proposed by Gov. Deval L. Patrick “don’t go far enough.”

“We’ve had over the past year an alarming number of scandals within the Legislature, sweetheart deals for special interests, unreported lobbying, pension abuse, bribery, shady campaign donations and expenditures, and lobbyists literally thumbing their noses at state regulators,” Mr. Eldridge said.

“I think it needs to stop,” he told the Joint Committee on Administration and Regulatory Oversight at a lobbying and ethics reform hearing last month.

“One of the biggest problems with our current campaign finance system is that campaigns are often funded by the exact same people who are looking for specific favors, whether it is contracts or tax breaks or specific legislation,” Mr. Eldridge said.

“Whether or not the donations are made for specific ‘quid pro quo,’ the implication is the same: A campaign donation will improve your chances of getting what you want from government,” he said. The legislation Mr. Eldridge has filed would ban top officials and owners of firms with state contracts worth $50,000 or more from making campaign contributions to candidates for state office. It would also take the major step of banning campaign donations from lobbyists and prohibiting them from soliciting campaign funds as well.

Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Massachusetts Common Cause who favors the pay-to-play ban here, said it would dramatically change the way campaign funds are raised in Massachusetts.

“It would have a major impact on the amount of money being funneled into political campaigns. We’ve seen that in other states, as well as a shift in political culture” where pay-to-play bans are in effect, she said.

“Lobbyists do provide a lot of contributions by their direct contributions at $200 a head,” to each candidate, she said of the individual donation limit on lobbyists. But they play an even larger role “by directing and soliciting contributions by clients and other interested parties,” she said.

Organizing fundraisers for candidates and lining up donors, she said, “is part of the expected game for many, if not all,” lobbyists.

If the pay-to-play bills are adopted in Massachusetts, she said, “You are still going to have fundraising parties, there is no question about that. But the way they are conducted would be very different. It wouldn’t be as lucrative,” she said.

“It would be a good thing for democracy, but it would mean lawmakers would be voting to give up a source of funding that has been reliable and generous, and that is a difficult thing to do.” While critics of pay-to-play laws claim they infringe on constitutional rights to political expression and freedom to assemble, so far, pay-to-play bills in other states have withstood constitutional challenges.

The constitutionality of pay-to-play fundraising bans was tested most recently in federal court in Connecticut, after the Legislature adopted a law in 2006 banning fundraising by lobbyists and donations from state contractors. The Association of Connecticut Lobbyists and several other parties, including the ACLU, filed suit to block the law from taking effect, claiming it violated their constitutional rights.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill stated that “in light of Connecticut’s recent history of corruption scandals involving high-ranking state politicians, I conclude that the Legislature had a constitutional, sufficiently important interest in combating actual and perceived corruption by eliminating contributions from individuals with the means and motive to exercise undue influence over elected officials.”

Because the Connecticut law “does not materially undermine the plaintiffs’ core First Amendment rights,” the judge ruled, “the bans are narrowly tailored to pass constitutional muster.”

In his ruling, the judge noted that a poll of likely Connecticut voters showed 78 percent agreed that the way political campaigns were financed there encouraged candidates to grant special favors and preferential treatment to their contributors.

The Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission has ruled the ban on lobbyists giving and soliciting funds applies when an expressed request for a contribution is made, or when a request is made that a reasonably prudent person would not construe as anything else. They also ruled the law bans lobbyists from attending fundraisers, forwarding tickets for fundraisers, or bundling contributions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *