PHOENIX - The ABC15 Investigators saw sides of the legislative process citizens don’t normally get to see, as we watched state lawmakers from Arizona and across the country gathered in Texas for a week of business and pleasure.
Normally, you see our state lawmakers on the floor of the state house, or at committee meetings at the Capitol.
But we saw exclusive parties, private events, free drinks and sponsored lunches, all part of the behind-the-scenes world of lobbying, money and influence in politics.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
In August 2011, state lawmakers from Arizona and across the country met in San Antonio, Texas for the National Conference of State Legislatures – or NCSL.
The ABC15 Investigators were there too, along with investigative teams from five other sister stations nationwide.
During the day, we saw many legislators go to sessions on education, transportation and immigration. They ate at corporate sponsored lunches, while talking about managing during stressful times.
But, when day turned to night, the parties began.
We watched as the free cocktails flowed, attendees dug into free shrimp and enjoyed private tours of the Alamo.
Large groups of lawmakers and their staff attended invitation-only parties at local restaurants and bars with free drinks and buffets of food, paid for by private companies.
LOBBYING, MONEY, AND INFLUENCE
Sheila Krumholz is Executive Director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group that tracks money in politics. She said outside financial influence is growing and it’s happening behind closed doors.
“The main concern here really has to be the secrecy,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for businesses to be able to bend the ear of politicians in a very relaxed, even festive, lavish environment.”
We didn’t see any Arizona lawmakers take any special gifts, drinks or dinners in San Antonio, and none of your tax dollars were used on airfare or hotels.
But, some of our Arizona lawmakers received scholarship money from the NCSL Foundation to cover some of their travel expenses.
More than 150 companies, trade organizations and business associations donated a total of $2.1 million to the NCSL Foundation this year.
Cox Communications, Wells Fargo and Arizona’s Salt River Project each gave $12,500 to be a Gold Sponsor of the NSCL conference in San Antonio, Texas.
We asked NCSL leaders during a press conference if companies sponsoring these events could influence the lawmakers.
“How are they, in a bad way, influencing these legislators, when 99 percent of them don’t even know [which companies] gave them money?” Georgia Senator and NSCL Past President, Don Balfour, responded.
That is not what the ABC15 Investigators found.
We saw logos and signs, even big projection screens showing company names, making it easy for lawmakers to see who is funding the foundation and sponsoring events.
Dozens of other companies paid registration fees to be front and center inside the San Antonio conference center’s exhibit hall.
When they were not at sessions, lawmakers and their staff sampled beer provided by beer industry lobbyists and received chair massages from a Texas energy company.
Just to be clear, none of what we saw during the conference was illegal.
“Can a good thing be abused? I’m sure it can,” said Sen. Rich Crandall (R-Mesa), one of five Arizona lawmakers who we know attended the NCSL conference.
He told us he did receive one of those scholarships from the NCSL Foundation to help with his expenses.
Crandall says events like NCSL are the best way to learn about important issues.
“I don't know if there's anywhere else I could have gone to get that information,” Crandall said.
“We need politicians to get access to this information, but also to seek out the alternative perspective,” Krumholz said.
“If someone's going to sell their vote for a steak dinner, then there are some bigger issues around that lawmaker,” Crandall said.