- Associated Press - Friday, February 17, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - In a private dining room at a sleek downtown restaurant this week, half a dozen Utah lawmakers joined a group of lobbyists for dinner, with the group’s nearly $1,000 bill paid for by their health care-industry clients.

Legislators who attended all sit on committees that oversee health issues, but they say no one tried to influence them and it was a routine social event.

For members of the public, however, it’s hard to determine exactly how routine it is - the dinner falls into a gap in Utah lobbying laws and isn’t required to be divulged on lobbyist or lawmaker disclosure reports.

Utah’s lobbyist reporting laws create an exemption for events that are open to all members of any committee, official task force or party caucus. Wednesday night’s dinner, paid for by health care groups, was open to all members of three health-related committees.

John Wonderlich, the executive director of Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based open government group, said lobbyist reporting exemptions in other states generally require an event to be widely attended or open to the public, “not a dinner for people specifically that have power over your interests.”

That “just seems like a ridiculous exemption,” that Utah’s Legislature should fix, Wonderlich said.

The dinner Wednesday night at the trendy Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar in Salt Lake City was paid for by Aetna Health Plans, Intermountain Healthcare, Molina Healthcare and MountainStar Healthcare, a northern Utah hospital system. Invites went to 26 lawmakers who sit on the House and Senate Health and Human Services committees and the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, whose oversight includes health-related spending.

Those who attended insist lawmakers weren’t being lobbied on bills or issues. They also said the free meal at a trendy restaurant won’t change the way they vote on any issues or policies those groups are interested in.

“I’ve never felt that if somebody bought me a sandwich or a cookie or a nice dinner, that that’s going to make any difference at all,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who went to the Wednesday dinner.

Laura Barlow, a lobbyist who organized the event for the health care companies’ lobbyists, said she sets up similar events for members of other committees each week - such as natural resources or business and labor interests.

“We’re not there to lobby them,” Barlow said. “It’s to get to know them, get to know the legislators and give them a chance to relax and have a nice dinner.”

She said two lobbyists from health care companies attended, as did lobbyists from the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and Utah Association of Counties.

Attendees could only order from a fixed-price menu that included a starter, a choice of three entrees - lasagna, grilled chicken or garganelli bolognese - and a scoop of ice cream for dessert. The total bill came to about $975, and Barlow said she only one lawmaker, Sen. Brian Shiozawa, reimbursed her for their share of the meal. Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, brought his wife to the dinner and paid for her meal as well.

Shiozawa said Friday that it seemed like a nice restaurant and he invited his wife because he hadn’t seen her much with the sessions’ long days. He said Barlow is a family friend, and he viewed it as a social occasion.

“I can see how it raises some eyebrows,” said House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who wasn’t invited.

Wilson said he doesn’t think the dinners influence legislators. But he said he understands how it looks to the public, and lawmakers might consider listing those dinners on House and Senate social event calendars, which can be made available to the media upon request.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Salt Lake City Democrat who was invited but didn’t go, posted a copy of the invitation on his social media accounts, saying that if he wanted to go to “a cool restaurant,” he’d pay his own way. Dabakis told The Associated Press that he feels the dinners give lobbyists an unfair advantage over average citizens.

“When they can sit down and wine and dine and have real, individual face time with legislators to explain only their position, it’s invaluable,” Dabakis said. “It is available only to people with a lot of dough.”

Woods Cross Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, who did attend, said it was a social event, but it gives lawmakers a chance to talk with businesses who play a role in the community. He said if the dinner had been livestreamed on the internet and the entire world could watch, “I think everyone would have said, ‘There’s nothing to see here.’”

“I am sure that there are people that see nefarious motives there,” he said, “But I’m just not one of them.”


Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice

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