An army of lobbyists has swarmed the statehouse. Legislators can't live without them. 

Deals with the Devil

During a hearing a couple of weeks ago, State Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. listened in bemusement as his colleagues peppered him with questions about a utility-deregulation bill he had written.

Finally he acknowledged that maybe he wasn't the best person to ask about his bill. "Let me defer to someone with greater knowledge," the James City County Republican said. Norment summoned to the podium William G. Thomas III, a lobbyist for Dominion Virginia Power.

With the assurance of a schoolmaster, Thomas provided technical explanations of how the removal of rate caps might benefit consumers and argued that the rolling blackouts caused by deregulation in California won't happen in Virginia.

At one point, a committee member proposing to strengthen state oversight of deregulation paused and asked Thomas: "Would this be OK with you?"

Thomas won the day. The committee passed Norment's bill establishing pricing and competition guidelines and rejected a one-year moratorium on deregulation.

The incident illustrates just how much sway lobbyists exert over Virginia's General Assembly. Overwhelmed by nearly 3,000 bills each session and the complexities of regulating bioscience, technology and 21s-century commerce, the part-time legislature increasingly turns to the state's growing cadre of lobbyists for advice.

As this year's session closed last week, it has become increasingly clear that the corps of 771 corporate gunslingers, lawyers and political insiders has become an unofficial, self-appointed arm of the General Assembly. Lobbyists influence every phase of a legislator's public service while sweetening their private lives.

They help elect lawmakers who are friendly to their clients' interests by directing millions of dollars in corporate campaign contributions. They write laws, forge compromises and serve as the primary source of information for legislators on most issues.

And they regale lawmakers with a cornucopia of comforts and special services.

Need food? A savvy legislator can avoid buying dinner when the General Assembly is in session by attending lavish nightly receptions sponsored by special interests.

Have children? Lobbyists give lawmakers thousands of dollars annually in free tickets to theme parks, circuses and sporting events.

Like to hunt? Legislators have been given free trips to pursue caribous in Canada, quails in Georgia and deer in Texas.

For the most part, lobbyists and legislators hold each other in high esteem, arguing that their relationship benefits the public and rarely produces any whiff of scandal.

"We're a part-time legislature, and the more complex government gets, the more we rely on lobbyists for information," says state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. "I can't even begin to describe the talent that's out there in the lobbying community and how dependent we've become on it."

Consider the trends:

In the past 20 years, the number of registered lobbyists in the state Capitol has increased from 683 to 771. Today, there are 5 ø lobbyists for every member of the General Assembly.

In the past decade, the number of corporations and others employing lobbyists in Virginia almost tripled, from 506 in 1990 to 1,410 last year.

During the same decade, the amount of money lobbyists reported collecting in fees and reimbursements for wooing legislators increased from $4 million to more than $10.2 million last year. And that's only a portion of what many lobbyists really make. They are not required to disclose the fees they earn from consulting with their clients about state business.

Virginia's lobbyists operate with little regulation. Unlike in many other states, there is no limit on their gift-giving to legislators. The only requirement is that lobbyists file annual statements disclosing everything they earned and spent while in direct contact with legislators.

Not everyone is comfortable with those developments. Many lobbyists work year-round on legislative issues while General Assembly members spend the bulk of their time away from Richmond pursuing private careers. Some legislators lament that they are outflanked by the lobbyists' expertise and often are left with little choice but to follow their lead on complex issues.

For example, Del. Clifton A. Woodrum, D-Roanoke, says lobbyists have overwhelmed his efforts to slow the pace of electric-utility deregulation. Tending to his law practice back home and dealing with thousands of bills and resolutions when he is in Richmond, Woodrum says it has been impossible to compete with the well-heeled lobbyists from power companies and the large industries pushing year-round for deregulation.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm 10 steps behind," Woodrum says. "I never feel like I know as much as some of the lobbyists."

Many also are concerned that the rising influence of lobbyists will increase the General Assembly's already pro-business leanings at the expense of consumers.

"Lobbying works, but it works best for those who have the deepest pockets," says Steve Calos, executive director of Common Cause of Virginia, a government watchdog group. "Citizen interest groups can't afford to take legislators to fancy dinners and hunting trips."

A case in point is the General Assembly's reluctance to tightly regulate telemarketers. Some legislators say the persistent sales calls are their No. 1 source of constituent complaints. But efforts to allow residents to put themselves on a "no-call list" have been defeated in recent years by a blue-chip lobbying effort from banks, credit card issuers, phone companies and major retailers.

"There's more suits in there than in Brooks Brothers," Del. George W. Grayson, D-Williamsburg, quipped last month after leaving a committee room following the defeat of his telemarketing bill.

The leading lobbyists do, in fact, dress extremely well. They're never hard to identify, milling in the hallways of the General Assembly Building, cell phones to their ears. Many come from Richmond's large law firms. Some are former legislators. Others have held key positions on gubernatorial staffs, in the bureaucracy or in state political parties.

State lawmakers and lobbyists say Virginia's honor system has worked well. Virginia largely has been spared the shame of money-for-vote payoffs that have been uncovered by sting operations in South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky and Arizona.

Despite their above-board record, many Virginia lobbyists acknowledge that their profession is not held in high public esteem.

"I'm proud of my ethics and my company's ethics," says H. Benson Dendy III of Vectre Corp., a prominent lobbying company. "But when I go to cocktail parties and people introduce me, they almost always try to avoid saying that I'm a lobbyist."

James W. Hazel, president of Williams Mullen Public Affairs, who counts America Online as one of his clients, adds, "My mother always knew what I did for a living, and she was proud."

The explosion of statehouse lobbying is by no means limited to Virginia.

"Generally, we think it's happening all around the country," says Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government and Advocacy, a state-government watchdog group based in Denver.

"Congress is deferring more and more issues to the states," she says. "State governments have become responsible for deciding intricate questions no one dreamed of 10 years ago: the technology revolution, DNA testing, the human genome and major health-care questions."

Those concerns have sent corporations flocking to Richmond in search of representation.

"Five or 10 years ago, a lot of high-tech companies in Northern Virginia regarded Richmond as a backwater town," lobbyist Charles J. Davis III says. "Not anymore."

Davis, whose major client is cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, is among about 150 full-time lobbyists who monitor the General Assembly year-round. Others work part time or as volunteers for everything from professional societies to federations of square dancers and garden clubs.

Adding to the numbers was a 1995 law allowing local governments and school boards to hire private lobbyists. Most of them have.

Professional or volunteer, the lobbyists are bound by an unwritten code.

"You're only as good as your word," says Richard D. Pulley, a lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, who trolled the halls of the Capitol for 32 years. "If you mislead a legislator, your credibility is shot. If you build a relationship of trust, you can be here a long time and make a nice living."

Legislators, who have small paid staffs, often ask lobbyists for more information and rely on them as research arms.

Pulley and many of his colleagues take a low-key approach, rarely making a direct request for a legislator's vote. Instead, they try to present facts to bolster their side and rebut their opponents' arguments.

"It's always nice to know where a legislator stands on your bill. You have to develop a feel to know when it's appropriate to ask them for a commitment," Pulley says. "Usually, you ask them something like, 'Do you have all the information you need to make a decision?'"

Win or lose, lobbyists always want a chance to look a legislator in the eye. Access to lawmakers is vital to their success.

Many longtime lobbyists lament that it's become increasingly difficult to get one-on-one time with legislators when the General Assembly is in session. The reason, they say, is that legislators have become besieged by increasing workloads, while more lobbyists than ever are competing for their attention.

Most of Virginia's top lobbyists have begun spending their "quality time" with lawmakers when the General Assembly is not in session, taking time to meet with them in their home offices around the state.

"You win and lose in Richmond based on what you do during the 10 months the General Assembly isn't meeting," Hazel says.

Many lobbyists try to build relationships by lavishly entertaining legislators. Last year, they gave lawmakers $635,000 in travel, meals and gifts. That's an average of $4,536 in freebies for each member of the General Assembly.

The Virginia Sheriff's Association last year spent at least $30,000 regaling legislators. The group took a handful of friendly lawmakers on a variety of hunting and fishing trips to Canada and Maine, not to mention overnight stays in New York to take in Broadway plays.

John W. Jones, lobbyist for the Sheriff's'Association, says business is seldom — if ever — discussed on the trips.

"We're just trying to get to know some of the legislators on a personal basis," he says. "To do this job well, it's important to get to know the people you're going to be dealing with."

Stolle, a former Virginia Beach police officer, went on three of the trips, as well as on excursions sponsored by Dominion Virginia Power and Brown & Root. "There's no quid-pro-quo arrangement at all," Stolle says. "It's just a chance to hunt, and everything is disclosed."

Norment, who has legislation to deregulate electric utilities, went quail hunting in Georgia courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power. His tab was almost $2,500.

Cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris spent $24,000 on entertaining small parties of legislators at Ruth's Chris Steak House during the eight weeks the General Assembly was in session last year. It also won legislation that would limit its financial exposure while appealing damage awards from lawsuits.

Paramount's Kings Dominion gave legislators 78 free tickets2 to the theme park at a cost of $2,753. It also successfully preserved a state law requiring public schools to open after Labor Day, a mandate Paramount has decreed vital to its business.

Dendy, the lobbyist for Kings Dominion, says the free tickets build good will and help to familiarize legislators with the park. "We never ask for anything in return," he says.

One key component for building relationships is deep pockets. Lobbyists and corporate interests donate millions of dollars each election to friendly legislators and candidates for statewide office. Dominion Virginia Power made $126,570 in contributions in the 1999 elections. Philip Morris gave $254,454 in the same period.

"We have thousands of employees in central Virginia," says David Tovar, a spokesman for Philip Morris. "We owe it to them to be involved in the political process."

Not all lobbyists are happy with the system, however. Many complain that legislators have dramatically increased their requests for contributions during recent elections when the partisan balance of the General Assembly has been up for grabs.

"They're all holding fund-raisers from the moment the legislative session is over to the moment the next one starts," says Sumpter T. Priddy Jr., the granddaddy of Virginia lobbyists, with 44 years in the ranks. "I don't think you can say it's all bad, but it has become a bit demanding."

Priddy, 77, spent most of his career representing the Virginia Retail Merchants Association. He recalls the early days when only a handful of lobbyists could be found around the General Assembly, and legislators always had time to talk. When asked how much things have changed, Priddy shakes his head and recalls a night several years ago when he and a few colleagues were celebrating the end of another General Assembly session.

"When does next year's session begin?" one lobbyist asked.

"Tomorrow," Priddy

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