Having a lobbyist pick up the dinner tab is "honestly a matter of convenience," said Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia.
"You have a meeting with a group of people and there's two lobbyists and four legislators there. Instead of splitting up the check, one person just gets it all," said Webber, who said he sometimes picks up lobbyists' tabs.
But the perception the reports leave can be damaging, so some legislators watch carefully to see if their name pops up on a lobbyist expense report and quickly reimburse the lobbyist.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said she checks each month where she ranks in terms of receiving lobbyist gifts and pays some back, either from campaign or personal funds.
"I don't want a high amount, period. I don't want a high ranking," she said.
For instance, Chappelle-Nadal used campaign money to repay lobbyists Scott Penman and David Winton for $61.68 worth of gifts the lobbyists gave the senator's staff at the end of the legislative session.
Rep. Caleb Jones, R-California, tapped his campaign account to repay the University of Missouri for 10 free tickets he received for three Mizzou basketball games. The tab: $380.
"It seems like more and more of them want to pay, compared to 10 years ago," said Steve Knorr, who lobbies for the University of Missouri and fields frequent requests for tickets. Whether the reimbursement comes from the lawmaker personally or a campaign account doesn't matter to MU, he said.
"To me, that's kind of between them and their donors," Knorr said. "As long as we're getting reimbursed, from our standpoint, cash is cash."
Not all officials used campaign money to pay back lobbyists. Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves, writes a personal check whenever she sees that a lobbyist reported an expenditure for her or her staff.
"People give me campaign money to succeed in my campaign in running for office," not hobnob with lobbyists, Kirkton said.
MOVES HARD TO TRACK
How many lobbyist-paid outings disappear from the books is impossible to say.
Speaker Jones reimbursed lobbyists for at least $2,215 they spent on him, his family and his staff from January through April.
That total reflects only instances where lobbyists noted that a repayment was the reason for amending the expense report. Some amended reports give no reason. Also, legislators sometimes repay lobbyists before the initial report is filed.
A more common way to stay off lobbyists' expense reports is by only partaking in group events. If the entire House or Senate or an entire caucus is invited, the lobbyist reports that the expense was for a group, without identifying the participants.
Other reasons lobbyists cite when they delete expenses include: the official attended but didn't eat, or the expenditure should have been reported as an "in-kind" campaign contribution.
An "in-kind" donation can be anything that is not cash -- food, beverages or services. In other words, a lobbyist's gift is transformed into a campaign donation on paper. No money need change hands to take the gift off the lobbyist's expense report.
For example, a lobbyist initially reported spending $120 in February on Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-south St. Louis County, but later deleted it from his expense report. Instead, his firm showed it as an "in-kind" donation to her campaign.
Either way, Haefner still got the gift -- a $120 case of Missouri wine.
"The legislator called and said, 'Hey, I didn't use it for drinking in my office. It was for the campaign side,'" said lobbyist Richard McIntosh, whose associate originally reported the expense.
McIntosh, who represents a long list of corporate and nonprofit clients, said he wouldn't mind if legislators banned lobbyist gifts. Keeping track of who attended a function, who ate the food and who returned a gift can be an accounting nightmare, he said.
"It is an enormous pain in my backside," he said.
"There are a lot more (legislators) now who are very much concerned about whether something shows up on their report than there used to be 10 to 12 years ago. Some are very, very sensitive to something showing up on the reports, because they don't want to be beat up by the newspaper."
Sifton, who beat Lembke in the state Senate race, plans to prefile a bill in December that would ban lobbyist gifts.
His rationale: During the legislative session, the $104 per diem from taxpayers easily covers renting an apartment, as well as meals, he said.
If a lobbyist picks up the dinner tab, "legislators can then pocket more of their $104 that day. I'm just not sure that's the best use of taxpayer money," he said.
While similar bills have died in previous years without even getting a hearing, Sifton said he hopes the issue gets traction this year. Though some colleagues argue they don't have time to leave the Capitol and buy their own lunches, he had an answer for that.
"There's a cafeteria in the basement."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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