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HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER Jerry Keen of St. Simons Island was treated to at least 70 dinners in 2007.

The Florida Times-Union

April 15, 2008

Lobbyist spending tends to flow to top

HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER Jerry Keen of St. Simons Island was treated to at least 70 dinners in 2007.

By Jake Armstrong, The Times-Union

ATLANTA - Power has its privileges. For House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, free meals apparently were one of them in 2007.

Lobbyists eager for the ear of the influential Keen treated him to more than $5,400 worth of meals - including at least 70 dinners, a few of which his wife attended - according to State Ethics Commission records. Lobbyists spent a total of $11,809.10 on Keen in 2007, the records show.

With his position of power in the Capitol's ruling party, Keen can influence legislation. As a result, companies, groups and individuals with interests in legislation hire lobbyists to try to influence the Southeast Georgia Republican's thinking.

"Being in leadership and being majority leader, there are a lot of folks that would like to talk to him," said Chase Daughtrey, Keen's deputy chief of staff.

Keen's staff sets his dinner schedule with farm, energy, communications or other interests, which account for some of the meals. But since the majority leader's office is responsible for feeding staffers, state troopers, doorkeepers and others, some of the meals go to those confined to the Capitol while the House is in session, Daughtrey said.

"It is hard to leave the Capitol while the [General Assembly] is in session," he said.

Lobbyist spending in 2007 tended to follow the House pecking order, with lobbyists reporting they spent $13,469 on House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, and $13,726 on Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, R-Duluth. In contrast, lobbyists reported spending $935 on Democratic Minority Leader Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

Apart from Keen, no other Southeast Georgia lawmakers attracted noteworthy spending from lobbyists.

While legal, lobbyists' gifts can cloud the public's perception of who a lawmaker is serving, said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, an Atlanta-based political watchdog group. Still, special interests have a right to make their case with elected officials, he said.

Yet Common Cause Georgia believes the public might be better served if special interest groups made their cases on the strength of their arguments rather than the depth of their pockets, Bozarth said.

"They can say - and they may be right - there is no quid pro quo, but I think we'd all be more comfortable if it did not take place," he said.

Efforts to clamp down on lobbyists' gifts to legislators have met resistance from both Democrats and Republicans, most recently under Gov. Sonny Perdue's plan to cap gift amounts in 2005, Bozarth said. The caps ultimately failed to take hold in the House or Senate.

However, scandal usually begets reform, and Bozarth said he would not be surprised if the state's inquiry into a lobbyist relationship with fallen Rep. Ron Sailor, D-Decatur, would prompt another look at the state's laws. Sailor accepted an $80,000 business loan from a payday loan lobbyist ahead of a vote on payday lending.

"There may be a willingness to look at it again next year," Bozarth said.

Florida, a bellwether for ethics reform in the South, banned gifts from lobbyists about two years ago, a sign that change may be on the way to Georgia, Bozarth said.

Add to the mix that 2008 is an election year, and the issue of ethics in lobbying may be a subject candidates will address, Bozarth said.

Keen was also among lawmakers who consumed the most taxpayer money dispensing their duties, getting reimbursed $37,908 in mileage, office expenses and per diem payments over 107 working days last year, according to Lestate records.

That's in addition to the $17,000 annual base salary all state lawmakers receive.

As House majority leader, Keen is one of about a dozen House and Senate members who take on additional duties and, as a result, can bill taxpayers for work beyond the 40-day legislative session and committee days.

jake.armstrong@morris.com, (404) 589-8424

Legislative Expenses and lobbying Iin 2007

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick Expenses and salary: $37,655.85 Value of gifts from lobbyists: $418.06

Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross Expenses and salary: $33,509.66 Value of gifts from lobbyists: $751.88

Rep. Cecily Hill, R-KingslandExpenses and salary: $32,939.60 Value of gifts from lobbyists: $452.78 Rep. Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island Expenses and salary: $54,908.18 Value of gifts from lobbyists: $11,809.10 Note: House and Senate members have until today to submit 2007 expenses for reimbursement, so final 2007 figures may vary.

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/041508/geo_268335660.shtml.

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