These scandals have blossomed during a time when state-level politicians are receiving less attention from watchdog groups and journalists than ever. When more than 4,000 lawmakers, vendors, lobbyists, and legislative staff gathered for the annual convention of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) this summer, only 26 journalists – most of them local media -- registered to attend.
Many lawmakers participated in 40-plus hours of programs and sessions designed to address important issues such as education, health care, transportation, public pensions, and energy inside the convention hall. In the evenings, hundreds of state lawmakers attended lavish parties sponsored by lobbyists and corporate interests.
Over the course of four days, influential leaders from 50 states and Puerto Rico allowed themselves to be wined and dined and entertained by big corporations, labor unions and lobbyists. Corporate sponsors and lobbyists helped foot the bill for an extravagant river-front party featuring Kentucky barbecue, private dancing on the deck of the steamer Belle of Louisville, and live music by Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn and Patty Loveless – all invitation only. Later in the week, lawmakers were invited to Churchill Downs, where they were treated to private thoroughbred races, barrels of free bourbon, platters of tenderloin and prime rib, and the chance to win free access to a 2011 Kentucky Derby box.
"There's one thing you can say about Louisville, Kentucky," said the state's House Speaker, Rep. Gregory D. Stumbo. "They know how to party."
Blowout parties for the state lawmakers may be a convention staple, but what was different this year was the presence of five university graduate school journalists on assignment for ABC News, with cameras and questions. The five journalism graduate students took on the project of investigating America's state houses after being selected as fellows with the Carnegie Corporation for the summer.
"Do you think taxpayers back home would like to see their legislators partying it up at Churchill Downs?" one of the fellows asked North Carolina Rep. Martha Alexander.
"Well, I don't know, I've never really asked them to be honest with you," Alexander replied. "They probably wouldn't like it, but they don't like most of the things we do."
The students' footage provides a rare glimpse of what watchdog groups say is an unholy alliance that has been forged between lawmakers and lobbyists in the country's state capitals. Ellen Miller is the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan watchdog group that has long tracked money and in influence in Washington and is now also focusing on the state houses, where lobbyists vastly outnumber lawmakers, spending millions to gain influence.