- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — State legislators flew to places as diverse as Algeria and Lithuania, hunted deer in Texas and watched the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field last year, all courtesy of lobbyists and the interests they represent.

All told, private companies and organizations paid for nearly $167,000 worth of travel, meals, sporting events, conferences, receptions, meetings and other perks for House and Senate members in 2007.

State taxpayers picked up another $96,000 for delegates and senators who attended legislative business conferences last year, according to disclosure forms filed this month with the clerks of the Senate and House.

Information from the forms was compiled into a database by the Virginia Public Access Project — an independent, nonprofit tracker of money in state politics, and analyzed by the Associated Press.

The top nongovernment benefactor to legislators was the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association. It reported $16,993 worth of gifts last year. The bulk of it was spent on deer-hunting trips for two state senators.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, said he went on deer hunts in Texas with the sheriffs’ organization the first week of January 2007 and last November. The value of the two trips totaled $8,654.

“They ask us to go every year, and quite frankly I have a hard time telling the sheriffs, ‘No, I’m not going to go hunting with you,’ ” said Mr. Stolle, a former police officer who has headed the state Crime Commission and the Courts Committee in his 17 years in the Senate.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment, James City Republican, went along on the first hunting expedition, listing its value at $5,512, the same as Mr. Stolle’s.

Both men said the trips don’t influence their votes.

“Frankly, I’m offended you would ask me that question,” Mr. Norment said. “If you think I’m going to be influenced by a hunting trip, then I am disappointed in your professionalism.”

Government-watchdog groups say the payments help monied interests bend state laws to their benefit. Legislators and the givers of the gifts defend the spending as a way constituents cultivate relationships with lawmakers and educate them on issues affecting complicated industries and interests.

Payday lenders, this year battling legislation that would limit interest rates they can charge for short-term loans, spent $6,374 enlightening lawmakers last year, most of it at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga.

Richmond-based Dominion, the state’s dominant power company, bestowed gifts worth $11,270. Among them: a $1,032 hunting trip for Mr. Stolle, Redskins tickets for 17 lawmakers, and tickets for Nextel Cup races in Richmond for two delegates.

Dominion last year was the force behind legislation to establish a “hybrid” form of utility regulation in Virginia.

Company spokesman David Botkins said Dominion supports Virginia’s lobbyist-disclosure laws, but “as far as individual gifts go, we feel they speak for themselves, and we have no comment beyond that.”

In reports submitted this month, legislators routinely left out details such as dates, venues and descriptions of gifts received.

Cost estimates for transactions can vary widely. As Mr. Norment noted, values individual providers assign for travel on private or corporate aircraft are calculated in vastly different and sometimes perplexing ways.

Costs for commercial air travel are more quantifiable, including overseas trips for Delegate Franklin P. Hall, Richmond Democrat, and Sen. Janet Howell, Fairfax Democrat, both representing national organizations for state legislators.

Mr. Hall’s $2,356 trip to Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, was for a trade and economic development seminar paid for by the nonprofit, nonpartisan State Legislative Leaders Foundation. He has traveled to similar conferences in Mexico City and the Ukraine.

“You get to talk to people in a similar position, and it’s enormously helpful,” Mr. Hall said.

Mrs. Howell’s trip, made as part of the National Conference of State Legislators, included meetings with the Algerian parliament. Its value was $1,800.

The most common category of gift was meals and receptions at an average value of about $130 per event: 103 lawmakers reported attending them, with six legislators going to 10 or more. The total value came to nearly $51,000.

Delegate Adam Ebbin, Alexandria Democrat, was the most frequent guest, attending 20 functions worth $4,105. Sen. Yvonne B. Miller, Norfolk Democrat, went to 12 valued at $3,788, and Delegate David W. Marsden, Fairfax Democrat, attended 14 worth $2,866.

Sporting events were popular perks. Legislators accepted free sports tickets 78 times last year. Dominion provided them 21 times, mostly to Redskins games. The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech provided lawmakers complimentary ticket packages 14 and 11 times, respectively, mostly for football games.

GIFT RECIPIENTS

The 10 Virginia legislators who reported receiving the most gifts from lobbyists for businesses, organizations or individuals:

TotalLegislator

$11,142.10Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican

$10,736.10Delegate Adam Ebbin, Alexandria Democrat

$7,536.79Sen. Yvonne B. Miller, Norfolk Democrat

$6,642.69Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican

$5,293.56Sen. Frank W. Wagner, Virginia Beach Republican

$5,061.82Delegate Terry G. Kilgore, Scott Republican

$4,963.00Delegate John M. O’Bannon III, Richmond Republican

$4,731.72Delegate Franklin P. Hall, Richmond Democrat

$4,639.34Delegate Ward L. Armstrong, Henry Democrat

$4,105.66Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican

Source: House, Senate financial-disclosure statements, compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project

Associated Press

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