- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - When 22 Kentucky lawmakers and lobbyists were charged with giving and taking bribes nearly three decades ago, the state legislature responded by passing what is still regarded as one of the toughest ethics laws in the country.

Tuesday, a federal judge dismantled most of that law that regulates contact between legislators and lobbyists, ruling it was too vague to be enforced and violated lobbyists’ freedom of speech.

The ruling was cheered by a Republican state senator who said it was ridiculous lawmakers could be prosecuted for accepting a bottle of water from a lobbyist. But the ruling alarmed Kentucky’s chief law enforcement officer, who called it a “very dangerous decision.”

“It opens the door for a significant amount of corruption,” Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman says it is now OK for lobbyists who are paid to influence legislation to give gifts to lawmakers. He also said it was OK for lobbyists to donate money to politicians’ campaign accounts and to raise money for their re-election bids.

“Influencing the government through the act of lobbying is at the heart of the political process. A law that specifically restricts what a lobbyist can and cannot do regarding a legislative member of government is a suppression on their freedom of association with those individuals,” Bertelsman wrote.

Kentucky’s law banning lobbyists giving gifts to lawmakers includes “anything of value,” which Bertelsman said was too vague. He relied on the testimony of John Schaaf, the executive director of the Legislative Ethics Commission, who was asked if it was illegal for a lawmaker to accept a bottle of water from a lobbyist. Schaaf said it was possible, adding the lawmaker should stop and call him to ask if he should accept it.

“This testimony alone indicates that the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not give a person of ordinary intelligence the ability to know what conduct is prohibited,” Bertelsman wrote.

George Troutman, chairman of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, said it’s hard to argue against a lawmaker accepting a cup of coffee from a lobbyist as the two chat about legislation.

“But, everybody being human beings, it may not stop at a cup of coffee. It may stop at a fancy dinner in the Caribbean,” he said.

Republican state Sen. John Schickel, who filed the lawsuit, said state and federal prosecutors should go after lawmakers who accept bribes. But he said Wednesday’s ruling was a “victory for freedom of speech.”

The judge also appeared to rule it was illegal for lawmakers to form caucus campaign committees that could then give unlimited amounts of money to candidates. That law was challenged by David Watson, a former Libertarian House candidate in November who said he could not compete with the Republican and Democratic candidates because they were receiving support from their respective caucus campaign committees.

“They can raise more money than anyone else can, and it kind of perpetuates the status quo,” Watson said.

Bertelsman wrote the state law defining these campaign committees as only Republican or Democratic was unconstitutional. But he appeared to say a law allowing people to donate money to these committees was legal. John Steffen, executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, said his office was still studying the ruling on Wednesday.

Republican and Democratic caucus campaign committees combined to donate more than $886,000 to House candidates in the most recent election, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

“While the Court suggested the concept of Caucus Committees may be permissible, it is not permissible to exclude Libertarians and other political parties from being able to have Caucus Committees,” said Tom Bruns, Watson’s attorney.

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