Oklahoma lobbyists spent more than $300,000 this year on meals, gifts and receptions to try to influence or build relationships with lawmakers, but the legislators say the lobbyist largess had no impact on their votes.
Capitol watchers concede a meal or gift may not sway a legislator, but it builds a relationship that gives those lobbyists access and influence the average voter will never have.
“The wining and dining is not as big as it used to be, but many have relationships with existing lobbyists and they’re friends,”said Oklahoma City University Professor Andrew C. Spiropoulos, who served as an adviser to the House speaker a decade ago.
Freshman state Rep. James Leewright, a freshman Republican who represents District 29 southwest of Tulsa, was one of the top recipients of lobbyists’ meals and gifts this session, according to a Watchdog.org analysis of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission lobbyist disclosure database.
Although he had been warned of pressure tactics by lobbyists before the first day of the 2015 session, he maintains he witnessed no inappropriate conduct by members of the lobbying corps.
“They’re just wanting to get to know us, to establish a relationship,” said Leewright, who accepted about $2,600 in meals and gifts, records show. “I was never once asked: ‘This is really important. Can you vote for this?’ That just doesn’t happen.”
In 2015, ethics disclosures show lobbyists spent the most on mass events for large groups of lawmakers. Those parties and caucus meals cost nearly $170,000.
The amount drops quickly for individual lawmakers. The top gift-getter this session was Rep. Casey Murdock, R-District 61. He received nearly $2,900 in meals and gifts, including a $207 meal from the teachers union lobbyist and $190 in basketball tickets from a lobbyist who represents the municipal league, wind power and an economic development group, the database shows.
Murdock said he was trying to make as many contacts as possible, understand the issues and figure out how the Capitol works.
“As a freshman, I wanted to meet as many people as I could meet,” he told Watchdog.org. “I was trying to hit three dinners a night just for those contacts. I didn’t feel like I was doing any good by going to my apartment and sitting there and doing nothing.”
Murdock said he was popular with lobbyists because they want to meet the newest House members to establish relationships and pitch their issues.
“You’re the new girl in town and everyone wants to take you out,” he said. “They are building a relationship. When they take you out to eat, they are renting your time. They are basically salesmen on an issue and sell a bill of goods no different than the Fuller brush salesman. It’s that face-to-face sale where you can sit down and visit about an issue and they can plead their case.”
Leewright was second on the list, also receiving a $197 meal from the teachers union and $150 ticket to the governor’s ball from Jami Longacre, who was in a Watchdog.org story earlier this week about top spending lobbyists.
Leewright said he doesn’t remember the teachers union meal, but remembers the ticket. He dismissed any suggestion he would be influenced by those gifts.
“As far as a lobbyists asking me to do something and going to trade me a meal, that is asinine,” he said.
Freshman Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-District 38, Senate President Pro-Temp Brian Bingman, R-District 12, and Senate Appropriations chairman Clark Jolley, R-District 41, round out the top five lawmakers who took the most from lobbyists. They each accepted more than $2,200.
Bingman and Jolley did not return calls and emails seeking comment, though Jolley’s secretary said he was on a family vacation and couldn’t be reached.
Lobbyists gave Jolley basketball tickets for his birthday, dined with him to discuss liquor issues and provided pizza during budget negotiations, the database shows.
Bingman received a plaque from the state troopers association, a book for his birthday and a coin commemorating his 100 percent voting record for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, records show.
Pfeiffer ate with the teachers union representative, had dinner with the Oklahoma State University president and received tickets to the speaker’s ball from a lobbyist who represents several energy companies.
Pfeiffer said he used lobbyists as a way to get good information on issues he did not understand well.
“A lot of times in the state Legislature, you can’t be an expert on all issues,” he said.
Leewright echoed that stance, saying in his first session he quickly learned the lobbyists who would honestly portray the positives and pitfalls of a bill and others who were deceptive and only pushed their points of view.
He also learned that some lawmakers who refuse to take meals and gifts often were hypocrites.
“There are certain legislators who don’t accept gifts or trinkets from lobbyists — don’t go out to dinner — but have no problem taking a $5,000 check from their PAC,” he said, conceding that lawmakers can’t accept the campaign contribution during the session. “I quickly lost respect for them.”
Murdock said being courted by lobbyists is not as glamorous as some may assume.
“I’m looking forward to next year when I won’t be a freshman and won’t have to go to many dinners,” he said. “It gets old. Often you’re not the least bit interested in what they’re selling and you’re going through the motions.”Follow @FortySixNews