GIFT REPORTING: Legislators' cruise leads to criticism

Las Vegas Review Journal
Ed Vogel

Ethics expert says trip taken by pair of lawmakers shows ties with lobbyists

CARSON CITY - A Las Vegas ethicist said Monday that a recent cruise taken to Baltic countries by two legislators shows that a "too cozy relationship" exists between lawmakers and lobbyists.

Craig Walton, president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, said legislators should keep an "arm's-length relationship" with lobbyists.

He is troubled that Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, took a cruise organized by Cox Communications. Walton said he is concerned though the two legislators paid for the trip.

"It is not the amount of money," said Walton, a retired UNLV professor. "It just shows how intimate a relationship lobbyists have with legislators. We have become accustomed in Nevada with the sleazy, chummy way lobbyists operate with legislators."

Both lawmakers paid for the 11-day trip, which included stops in Russia. Because Cox Communications received a group discount rate, what they paid was about half of the charge individuals going on their own would have paid.

Cox Communications spokesman Steve Schorr said Friday that politics was not discussed on the trip and that the two legislators paid all charges.

But Walton said average citizens would not receive an invitation to take a cruise or secure the kind of attention from legislators that Cox Communications does.

Cox Communications sought legislative approval of a bill last spring that would require customers of satellite TV companies to pay a 5 percent franchise tax to local governments.

Cable TV customers pay the tax, and Cox has argued that the same tax should be charged satellite TV customers.

The bill died without a vote.

"They will try again," Walton said. "Cox comes before the Legislature with its commercial interest in mind. The reason they invited legislators along on the cruise is they want to curry their favor. What about you and me? We don't have much of a chance being heard as an organized commercial organization."

Both Raggio and Perkins said they did nothing wrong.

"I paid everything I had to pay," Raggio said Monday, echoing comments made by Perkins on Friday.

Raggio released copies of his credit card records.

Raggio added he has "no concern" that legislators keep too close of a relationship with lobbyists.

"We are nice to everybody," he said.

Walton said Raggio "trivialized" a bill he testified for during the legislative session.

Senate Bill 140, introduced by Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, died without a vote in committee. Walton said the March 18 hearing lasted 10 minutes.

Under the bill, lobbyists would have had to report all gifts or meals they give legislators.

Now, lobbyists must report only what they give legislators during the 120-day session.

But legislators and other public officials must report each year any gifts they receive from lobbyists with a value of more than $200.

Passing the Care bill was important because in most cases the public never learns about trips or gifts that legislators receive from lobbyists between sessions, Walton said.

Care said his bill would not have mattered in the trip Raggio and Perkins took because they paid the expenses incurred by Cox Communications.

"I take comfort in that they paid their own way," Care said.

He said what disturbs him is that a lobbyist must report whether he or she buys a sandwich for a legislator during the session, but nothing is reported if the lobbyist buys the same sandwich for the legislator once the Legislature adjourns.

"I don't think it is necessarily wrong to accept a gift, a meal or free transportation, but it ought to be reported," Care said.

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