Cost of ‘trinkets’ adds up in Austin
By MATT STILES
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 4, 2009
AUSTIN — For the men, it’s pistols and venison. For the women, flowers and spa treatments. Around the Texas Capitol, gifts are a custom — and lobbyists are buying.
Food baskets and golf balls. Pocket knives and saddles. One lawmaker got a stuffed goose; others cookies, books and circus tickets.
Gifts to lawmakers and other state officials, legal under state law, have cost lobbyists and their clients more than $1.6 million over the last decade, according to a Houston Chronicle review of ethics records.
For lobbyists, the gifts are harmless forms of advocacy, part of getting lawmakers to hear their political agendas. For Capitol watchdogs and critics, it’s the granting of small favors in an effort to influence policy.
“Most of the time people are giving gifts, especially the small stuff, really as a courtesy,” said Jack Gullahorn, president of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, a lobbying trade group.
Included among gifts, records show, were computer disks, glass decanters, coffee mugs and jewelry. Lobbyists also gave frames, clothes and shaving kits (complete with the state seal).
“Lobbyists like to say that they prevail by having the best command of the facts,” said Andrew Wheat, research director with the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “Yet this ‘marketplace of ideas’ is a bizarre bazaar. It’s overrun with such tribute payments as campaign cash, meals, drinks, trips and tchotchkes (trinkets).”
Lobbyists interviewed by the Chronicle say the gifts are trinkets used to build relationships and name recognition for their clients, not to curry favor.
The gifts are among more than $20 million spent by lobbyists on elected officials and state employees since 1998, including large sums on food and beverages, entertainment and transportation, newly released records show.
In a statehouse filled with sportsmen, lawmakers got more than 60 pistols in recent years, records show, including derringer-style models purchased by two lobbyists.
“They call them ‘snake charmers’,” Glenn Davis, a lobbyist with American Fireworks and the Texas Pyrotechnic Association, said of the pistols he bought with his brother, Chester. “This being Texas, we’ve got a lot of hunters. It was a nice gift that, if they go out on their property and come across a snake, it’s easier than a shotgun.”
Lobbyists help pay for hunting trips, too.
Energy Future Holdings, formerly TXU Corp., has taken more than a dozen lawmakers and senior legislative staffers to a Hill Country ranch stocked with deer.
One of them, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, went during the 2007 session. The company listed a $181.50 “deer processing” cost on its report to pay for animals shot by guests who went with him.
Martinez Fischer said the trip was an overnight retreat, a chance to talk policy, and the group got no special treatment because of it.
“Nobody should accept a gift with the expectation that they have to do something. That’s wrong,” he said. “Most members, I believe, are responsible enough to be up here and represent their districts, and they know the difference.”
State Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, got two such gifts in 2005 and 2007 from the company, totaling as much as $340.
Asked whether voters in his district could take him to a Hill County ranch to discuss policy, Howard said, “My constituents are my priority. My goal is to answer their questions and keep them informed the best way I can.”
Lisa Singleton, an Energy Future Holdings spokeswoman, said the ranch is a place to learn about constituents’ concerns.
“Everybody who has an interest has the opportunity to participate the process, whether that’s entertaining or visiting and walking the halls of the Capitol,” she said.
Records also show more than 100 pricey floral bouquets were sent, and more than a dozen female officials received trips to spas.
This session, Texans for Lawsuit Reform offered its annual “women’s night out” at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin. More than 300 staffers and employees attended.
“Instead of the normal cocktail party, you come in and get a 10-minute mini-manicure, neck massage or foot massage,” said group spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester.