Legislators are back. Will the receptions return too?

On January 8, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

By John Rodgers, NashvilleCityPaper.com
January 8, 2008

State lawmakers are back in session today, and along with gavels banging and legislators arguing, another long-standing tradition will resume — the legislative reception.

For decades, organizations that typically employ lobbyists have thrown receptions so their members can talk to state lawmakers in a more laid-back setting, often over cocktails and finger food.

In 2005, however, the Tennessee Waltz sting arrested five current or former lawmakers and charged them with accepting bribes to influence legislation.

The culture on Capitol Hill was questioned further, and corruption on a grand scale was suspected among some in the general public.

To try and restore the public’s trust, new ethics laws followed, and starting in late 2006, for the first time, organizations hosting receptions had to disclose to the Tennessee Ethics Commission the invitation and the amount of money spent on the event.

The Ethics Commission discloses that information, or at least what it has available, on its Web site.

So far, just two events are registered for this year: the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Medical Society dinner on Jan. 10 and the Beverage Association of Tennessee’s “winter picnic” in February.

Some lawmakers think there are fewer legislative receptions now, possibly as a result of the disclosure requirement but also because there are additional legal hoops for throwing one.

House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower (R-Bristol) said legislative receptions are less prevalent now because the Waltz sting caused people on Capitol Hill to become “skittish” and that the disclosure process for hosting a reception is confusing.

“They’re less prevalent based on perception or the complication of filing (with the ethics commission),” Mumpower said.

Courtney Pearre, the chairman of the Tennessee Lobbyist Association, said he thinks there are just as many receptions now than in past years.

Pearre did acknowledge though that the reporting of the events has created a “mistaken perception” of “drunken orgies with finger foods.”

“I think it’s more business-like now than it was 25 years ago,” Pearre said of the culture on Capitol Hill.

During 2007, $413,470 was the total amount of money spent on legislative receptions on 56 events, according to the ethics commission’s Web site.

Despite possibly lower numbers of legislative receptions, former Sen. Jerry Cooper’s horrendous car accident – and following DUI – brought the entertainment events back into the limelight.

The night of Cooper’s accident, he attended three legislative receptions, according to news reports. Authorities say his blood alcohol level was .18, more than twice the legal limit. Cooper pleaded no contest to the charge.

In addition, other lawmakers have openly had trouble with alcohol. State Rep. Rob Briley (D-Nashville) recently pleaded guilty to a DUI allegation, and a hotel manager said Sen. Ophelia Ford (D-Memphis) was “extremely intoxicated” when she fell from a hotel’s bar stool last year. Ford denied she was drunk.

Mumpower was the only one of the four minority and majority leaders in the state Senate and House, however, who said he would specifically remind his members to be careful about alcohol.

The three others felt it should be left to the individual lawmaker.

“My members know not to drink and drive,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle (D-Memphis). “Individual behavior is the responsibility of the individual senator. These are grown men and women, and they will be held accountable for their actions just like the ones who weren’t here were ultimately held accountable for their actions.”

Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville), the Senate Republican’s leader, echoed similar thoughts, saying he trusted fellow GOP Senators’ judgment on “social issues.” Norris said there were fewer legislative receptions now.

House Majority Leader Gary Odom (D-Nashville) said legislators are “all adults” and they know “what’s right and they know what’s wrong.”

Odom said state lawmakers will make mistakes, however.

“Anyone who ever tried to suggest that the legislature is made up of perfect people is about as far wrong as you can be,” Odom said.


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