Alabama Lawmakers Meet To Weigh Reform Of 'Outrageous' Lobbying Laws

VIDEO: Brian Ross
WATCH Caught on Tape: Pol Threatens Reporter

The Alabama state legislature begins meeting today to consider replacing ethics laws for state legislators that critics say are among the loosest in the country with strict limits that may be among the toughest.

Outgoing Gov. Bob Riley, long an advocate of ethics reform, called for the special session after the indictment of three gambling lobbyists and four state legislators for allegedly trading votes for cash, and after a November election in which Democratic losses may have been made still more sweeping by the party's perceived closeness to the gaming industry.

Under Alabama's existing rules, lobbyists can spend up to $250 a day on an individual legislator without disclosure, or more than $90,000 a year. The lax restrictions have led to cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, like that seen during an ABC News investigation earlier this year. At a national convention of state legislators, student journalists working for the Brian Ross Investigative Unit found four Alabama lawmakers golfing with a gaming lobbyist instead of attending a seminar on good government. Gov. Riley's proposed changes would limit lobbyist spending on an individual legislator to $25 per occasion and $100 per year.

Ellen Miller, executive director of D.C.-based government watchdog The Sunlight Foundation, called Riley's proposed changes "good, solid steps forward." She had termed Alabama's current rules "outrageous" and among the worst she'd heard of at the state level.

Miller suggested, however, that Alabama also require that lobbyist spending reports be filed immediately. "To be meaningful in today's world, all these reports have to be filed electronically and in real time, not months after a gift is given, a lunch is eaten or a trip is taken. This kind of sunlight will stop bad stuff from happening."

Jim Sumner, director of Alabama's Ethics Commission was enthusiastic about Riley's plan. "This proposal will move Alabama a quantum leap forward in terms of ethics, accountability and transparency in government," said Sumner. "I think it's very comprehensive and really goes a long way toward filling gaps that we've had in the law in Alabama for a long time." Sumner's agency would receive increased authority and subpoena power under the proposal.

Sumner had long advocated for a reduction in the spending limit. He called the existing rules "outlandish ... It's far above the norm for hospitality and entertainment around the country."

Though many states are permissive, like Alabama, others 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.

In announcing his new set of proposed rules for Alabama, Gov. Riley said he believed they would be "the toughest in the country."

"It gets us back to a more level playing field," he said.

Alabama State Legislators Indicted

In October, four Alabama state legislators and three lobbyists were among the 11 people indicted in an influence peddling scandal. The indictment alleged that the lawmakers and lobbyists broke the law by trading votes for cash and other perks in order to pass legislation allowing electronic bingo.

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.

Two of the four legislators who were indicted were reelected in November.

Indicted state senator Quinton T. Ross Jr., a 41-year-old Democrat, will keep his seat after running unopposed. Ross is alleged to have sought campaign contributions from gambling lobbyists and businessmen the day before and after a key vote on the pro-gambling legislation last spring. He was charged with one count of conspiracy, two counts of federal program bribery, attempted extortion, among other charges. The other indicted state senator who was reelected in November, Harri Anne H. Smith of Slocomb, a Republican turned independent, allegedly lobbied other legislators to support legislation in exchange for promises and payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and businessmen.

Prior to the indictments, longtime Democratic State Senator James Preuitt switched parties and became a Republican, winning the GOP primary. He then dropped out of his reelection race in September and was arrested and charged in October.

The only indicted incumbent who lost, Democratic Sen. Larry P. Means, won 47 percent of the vote, and attributed his loss more to a GOP wave than to his legal troubles. "I don't know that the indictment hurt me," said Sen. Means. "I think it was just that straight Republican ticket."

CLICK HERE to follow the ABC News Investigative Team's coverage on Twitter.

But the national GOP wave was particularly pronounced in Alabama, where Republicans took control of the state house and senate for the first time since Reconstruction. Auburn University-Montgomery political science professor Bradley Moody says that the indictments, and a perception of corruption, may have accounted for the extra Democratic losses in Alabama.

"The bingo issue and the indictments served to reinforce an image or perception that already existed," said Moody. "The overall outcome would probably have been the same, but the degree to which the Republicans captured control of the legislature might not have been so great."

Alabama Lawmakers Golfing With Lobbyist

Two months before the indictments, student journalists working for ABC News had found four Alabama lawmakers and a gambling lobbyist enjoying a round of golf together at a posh Kentucky golf course.

The National Conference of State Legislatures annual convention was in full swing in Louisville, Kentucky, on the afternoon of July 27, with a well-attended session called "How Good Is Your Legislature?" But at 3 p.m. the student reporters found Alabama gaming lobbyist Greg Jones, Rep. McCampbell and three other Alabama lawmakers more than 20 miles away on the links.

CLICK HERE and HERE to read reports by the ABC News Carnegie Fellows on Alabama, and CLICK HERE for more stories on "State House Scoundrels."

Apparently, some members of the group playing at Persimmon Ridge did not want to be found. Alabama State Rep. Artis McCampbell, a Demopolis Democrat, responded to questions from an ABC News crew by brandishing his golf club. "Look, if you don't want me to take this to you, then leave!" he said.

The Persimmon Ridge golf group was listed under Jones' name, but Jones did not return calls from ABC News asking him to confirm that he paid the greens fees. Asked who had paid for the outing, one golfer, Republican State Rep. Harry Shiver, told ABC News, "They paid for some of it, I paid for the rest of it."

Though none of the lawmakers with Jones would turn out to be among those arrested, all were supporters of the gambling bill at the heart of the Alabama corruption scandal. Three of the four had also received tens of thousands in campaign donations from Greenetrack, a gaming client of Jones'.

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.

Shiver and the other three legislators did not respond to subsequent requests from ABC for more information about who had footed the bill. But even if Jones did pay, the Persimmon Ridge outing was perfectly legal under current state law. Eighteen holes of golf at Persimmon Ridge costs from $70 to $80 per person, far below the existing $250 cap.

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.

Gov. Riley, a gambling foe, told ABC News 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."

Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.