Other states have far stricter rules on gift expenditures. Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and South Carolina are considered "no cup of coffee states," where lobbyists cannot give a legislator anything -- not even a cup of Joe. In Arizona, lobbyists can spend just $10 a year on a single legislator before disclosure is required. In California, it's $10 a month. Some states take a more moderate stance, allowing lobbyists to spend $50 to 100 annually before requiring disclosure.
While Alabama may now be paying the price for loose laws with an influence peddling scandal, regulations are permissive in many states. Kansas has a $40 a year limit on gifts, but lobbyists can spend as much as they want on lawmakers in the form of recreation, food and beverages without disclosure. In South Dakota, there are no restrictions at all.
And the legislators' choice of a round of golf over an ethics seminar is emblematic of the challenges facing would-be reformers. Often poorly paid or part time, lawmakers are outnumbered in state capitals by lobbyists -- six or seven to one.
In Alabama, Republican Governor Bob Riley has pushed for ethics reform since he took office in 2003, but complained that his efforts and those of several watchdog groups hit an immovable obstacle each year in the legislature.
"It's the leadership. They have no incentive to pass ethics reform," said Chris Pritchett, a senior policy analyst at the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based outside of Birmingham. "There is such a culture of corruption in Alabama that people believe it's beyond repair."
The indictment handed down earlier this month alleges that Alabama legislators and lobbyists traded votes for cash and other perks in order to pass electronic bingo legislation. Gambling is against state law, but some counties allow an exception for bingo, and gaming interests responded by creating a form of electronic bingo virtually indistinguishable from slot machines. The gambling industry has tried year after year to make gambling legal statewide. One of the lobbyists indicted allegedly offered to provide campaign contributions "until the damn cows came home" in exchange for a legislator's pro-gambling vote.
The volume of money spread around meant that two of the golfers at Persimmon Ridge, Democratic state Reps. Bobby Singleton and Oliver Robinson, counted gaming companies and lobbies as their first and second largest campaign contributors from 2006 through 2010, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Greenetrack gave Singleton $97,500 and Robinson $25,000 in that time period. The gaming lobbyist Bob Geddie, whose Fine Geddie & Associates gave $52,500 to Singleton and $26,500 to Robinson, was among the lobbyists arrested earlier this month in connection with alleged vote buying involving other lawmakers.
"There is so much money involved," said Gov. Riley, "and there were so many people that had been hired -- all of the lobbyists here." Riley, a longtime foe of gambling, said it was very difficult to protect the anti-gambling votes in the legislature from the influence of the gaming lobby's money.
"You have to remember," said Riley, "our legislators here do not have a paid staff. Most of these people are pharmacists or doctors or insurance agents that come here."
"A lobbyist really can perform a useful function [and] if you're going to be in politics you're going to have to raise money. ... It's when you get to the point that you offer a cash reward for any particular vote, then there's no one who can defend that."
All 11 people arrested to date in the Alabama investigation have pleaded not guilty.