An ABC News investigation has found that corporate interests and their lobbyists are increasingly turning to state legislatures for lucrative contracts and favorable regulations, a dynamic that has bred a string of unsavory political scandals in state capitals around the nation. At least 80 state legislators have been indicted or convicted in the last five years.
The state house remains an often overlooked arm of American government, even as state legislators exercise control over more than a trillion dollars in taxes and spending, and enact laws that affect everyone. As a project to study an important institution that receives little scrutiny from the national media, five graduate school journalists selected as Carnegie Fellows working with the ABC News investigative unit examined the ethics and behavior of state legislators, and found conduct that could be best described as unbecoming.
At a national convention of state legislators in Louisville, Kentucky over the summer, more than 1,300 politicians and staffers fanned out across Louisville to a series of corporate and lobbyist sponsored dinners and parties, including a lavish reception at the world-famous horse racing venue Churchill Downs sponsored by Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo and Sprint, among others, and a massive waterfront concert. Lawmakers devoured prime rib and tenderloin, and consumed bourbon by the barrel.
One legislator from Puerto Rico took advantage of the festive environment to make unwanted advances on a female student journalist, groping and kissing her –all as the cameras rolled. In a statement to ABC News, Rep. Jorge Navarro Suarez denied any misconduct, and said he got close to the student to understand her, since the music was loud and he doesn't speak English well.
Another lawmaker threatened a student journalist with a raised golf club when cameras caught the legislator skipping a good government seminar at the conference in favor of a private golf outing with a lobbyist.
A spokesperson for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which sponsored the Louisville gathering of lawmakers, said that the event included "40-plus hours of programs and sessions addressing important issues" and that the organization had no connection to private events held during the convention. "NCSL does not sponsor, endorse or otherwise encourage participation in events outside of our schedule," said Gene Rose, communications director for the group.
During the convention, NCSL staffer Anne Teigen told ABC News, "It's just a wonderful time to get together and learn wonderful new ways to govern."
A series of indictments and convictions of state lawmakers over the past five years suggests the problems of influence peddling and corruption are only getting worse. Lawmakers in Tennessee, Alaska , New Jersey, and Massachusetts have been caught by the FBI and convicted for accepting cash or taking gifts and favors in exchange for their willingness to change votes or influence state policy. Just this month, federal agents indicted four Alabama lawmakers on charges they took payoffs from lobbyists in exchange for their votes on controversial bingo legislation. All four have pleaded not guilty.
To learn more about what's really going on in America's state capitals, watch the full investigation this Wednesday on Nightline and World News.