Texas Capitol's lobby has a revolving doorSan Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — The day before Ray Allen resigned his seat as a state representative a week ago, he announced he was setting up shop as a lobbyist.
By hanging out his shingle, he'll take the expertise and contacts amassed in his seven terms in office representing the public — and put them to work for private concerns.
Allen, a Republican from Grand Prairie, is following a well-trampled path in Texas, a way for state lawmakers who are paid only $600 a month to cash in on their insider status. If he continues down the path of the so-called superlobbyists, he will complete the circle by returning to government.
An ongoing scandal in Washington has focused on fancy meals and overseas trips for politicians arranged by a highly successful lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to corruption and fraud charges.
He's now cooperating with federal investigators targeting his former allies in Congress.
In Texas, watchdog groups say ethics reforms in the early 1990s largely have curtailed the wining, dining and high-priced hotel stays provided by lobbyists and their clients.
What those reforms didn't address, the watchdogs say, is the so-called revolving door that can entice public officials to put the priorities of their potential employers ahead of constituents.
Over the past 18 months, five state lawmakers who lost or surrendered their elective posts have resurfaced as lobbyists, collectively amassing contracts worth up to $1.7 million from clients whose interests they once affected in the Legislature.
Besides Allen, the list includes two former House Republicans, Arlene Wohlgemuth and Todd Baxter; and two former House Democrats, Jaime Capelo and Barry Telford.
"They know the secrets that go on behind closed doors, they know the committee members, they know the arguments for and against and they've got on-the-job training," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Austin-based Public Citizen. "Their value to (special interests) is enormous."
Andrew Wheat, research director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, also in Austin, said the issue posed serious challenges for democracy.
"What does that do to the public's faith in the integrity of their government?
"The essential problem is wealthy special interests have better access and representation in Austin than does the general public," he said.
Need the money
Allen, 55, who resigned his seat Jan. 20, has said he's merely trying to make ends meets.
"The reason is plain and simple: I simply cannot afford to serve on a $600-a-month salary with no other source of income with the prospect that we will soon be in special session until June," Allen, 55, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last week.
Neither Allen, Wohlgemuth, Baxter nor Capelo returned calls for comment.
In a phone interview from DeKalb, where he lives and works part time as a propane dealer, Telford dismissed concerns about wealthy special interests benefiting unfairly by the revolving-door lobby.
He said he wasn't ashamed of landing a contract worth as much as $150,000 with the Texas Retired Teachers Association after not seeking re-election in 2004.
The private, not-for-profit group's nearly 60,000 members have a keen interest in making sure the state's pension system for teachers is fully funded. The group also is working to raise teacher pensions. Telford served for years on the House Pensions and Investments Committee.
"The only thing I do is go to the members of the Legislature and talk about things I know," he said.
Though not neutral, lobbyists supply factual information and that alone serves an important function, Telford said, adding he relied on them during his 18 years in office to verse him on the ins and outs of issues.
"The people in the state of Texas are busy with their lives. If it hadn't been for the people who knew the issues ... we'd have had a helluva mess," he said.
Telford took the lobbying job with the teachers association because he believed in its cause and because it came with the very thing the watchdog groups fear: money.
Lobbyists have been around for about as long as there have been people who want to influence government. They are hired guns used by virtually every industry and interest group in the country. Newspapers employ them, as do pharmaceutical, telecommunications, oil, grocery and auto companies, cities and counties, labor unions and professional associations.
They are paid to convince lawmakers to back their clients' particular agendas and they do so with charm, research — and money, sometimes lots of it, often channeled into campaign coffers.
Their expertise allows them to write bills, or portions of bills, if a lawmaker wants to help their cause but doesn't know enough about it to draft legislation.
Across the country, a hodgepodge of regulation governs lobbyists' relationships with legislators.
Texas doesn't ban lawmakers from accepting trips, gifts and fancy meals but it does require that they report any meals or travel worth more than $76.80 per day or gifts worth more than $50 per day. Some states don't require any disclosure.
Federal law requires a one-year "cooling off" period before outgoing members of Congress can become lobbyists. According to the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, Texas is one of 27 states with no such revolving-door ban on its legislators, although Gov. Rick Perry has a limited rule affecting his own senior staff.
The other states have either a one- or two-year ban, the latter including Florida, Kentucky and New York.
What's clear around the country is that reforms almost always follow scandal, said the center's Leah Rush.
In Texas, some watchdog groups say the Abramoff mess isn't likely to be scandalous enough to convince state lawmakers to pass a new ethics bill.
"I think they'll work in the dark to kill any meaningful reforms," Wheat said. "There are two huge, very powerful (forces) — lawmakers and lobbyists — who'll work to sabotage in the back room whatever might get proposed."
Close to 1,400 lobbyists are registered in Texas, and more than 36,000 are registered around the country. Nationally, that works out to be about five lobbyists and almost $130,000 in expenditures per state lawmaker, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Texas has eight lobbyists per state lawmaker, more than most states, and it ranks second only to California in the total value of lobby contracts, according to Texans for Public Justice.
The watchdog groups agree that in certain respects, Texas does a fair job of regulating lobbyists. They say the state's disclosure provisions have reined in the luxurious junkets that politicians — Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis among them — were caught taking from special interests in the late 1980s.
But in other areas, Texas laws are weak, they complain. It's one of 42 states to require some disclosure of lobbyists' earnings, but contracts worth $200,000 or more can be disclosed as "$200,000 and more."
"So is the contract worth $250,000, $500,000, a million dollars or 2 million dollars? Is that disclosure?" Wheat asked, noting that contracts worth $200,000 or more have shot up from six in 1999 to 39 in 2005.
The reforms were considered far-reaching when passed in 1991, Smith said. Today, his group is more concerned with the superconnected revolving-door lobbyist who joins other superconnected lobbyists in a team, Smith said.
He refers to people like Mike Toomey, a onetime lobbyist who earlier this decade became Gov. Perry's chief of staff before returning to the Texas Lobby Group, where he picked up many of his old clients. Critics say the biggest beneficiaries were clients like Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which saw its interests prevail when Toomey served the governor.
Four former members of Perry's staff worked as lobbyists both before and after their public service, according to Texans for Public Justice.
Like his predecessor, Perry bars senior staffers from lobbying his office for one year and one legislative session after they depart. The policy says nothing about lobbying the Legislature, requires no "cooling off" period for lobbyists hired by the governor; and carries no criminal sanctions.
Perry's spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, said hiring lobbyists to senior staff positions has been common practice among Texas governors and is "not something that's peculiar to Perry."
"The governor hires people he has confidence in and knows and who are good. It would not be good government to hire somebody who doesn't know anything about the Legislature."
If the Abramoff fallout is intense enough, Texas could see reforms in 2007, Smith said. But, he added, no matter how tight you make a loophole, someone will always find a way through.
As for Telford, he said his contract with the Retired Teachers Association ends later this year. He's hoping it'll be extended.