Lobbyists as Outlaws

By Boulard, Garry | State Legislatures, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Lobbyists as Outlaws


Boulard, Garry, State Legislatures


Gone are the days when no bedfellows were strange, and all gifts were welcome. Federal courts and federal and state laws have made old-fashioned lobbying as obsolete as spittoons.

The glistening dream of the corruption-free state, a dream that has beguiled reformers since the founding of the republic, has been F. William Sawyer's worst nightmare.

This past spring, Sawyer, a long-time, well-regarded lobbyist who worked for the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company in the Massachusetts legislature, was convicted in federal court of illegally favoring with gifts a number of state legislators, even after Sawyer's fellow lobbyists argued that he never did anything they hadn't done in the more than 20 years he worked as a lobbyist. The original indictment against Sawyer cited up to 612 "entertainment events" that mostly centered around meals and golf outings. Some of the events were valued at less than $5, while one of the largest expenses was a $3,200 tab for flying a legislator and his wife to New Orleans for the 1986 Superbowl.

"No one can know, unless they were at the trial, what a mind-boggling, scary case this has been for anyone involved with the state legislature," said Sawyer's soft-spoken attorney, Thomas R. Riley of Boston. "Bill Sawyer's entertainment has been demonized, but it is no different in any way from the normal, legal, social interaction that typifies the lobbying profession."

Other observers agree: Last summer the Massachusetts Association of Professional Lobbyists filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Sawyer's behalf in the First Circuit Court of Appeals and called the state laws governing lobbyist conduct in Massachusetts, the same laws that got Sawyer in trouble, "confused, often contradictory, and nearly indecipherable."

Another brief submitted by the State Government Affairs Council (SGAC) strikes similar chords. Sawyer was wrongfully accused and convicted, SGAC's outside counsel Timothy W. Jenkins argued, because the Massachusetts law governing lobbying conduct is "entirely unworkable. It authorizes certain kinds of conduct in one section of their state's general lobbying laws that it forbids in another."

AMBIGUOUS LAWS

Even after the legislature revisited its lobbying laws this summer to comb out such contradictions, the ambiguity that apparently snared Sawyer continues to exist. "We've gone through a second rewrite of our law governing questions of ethics, and there are still points of great confusion," admits Massachusetts Senator Stanley Rosenberg, one of the chief negotiators who tried to make sense out of the state's lobbying and ethics law. "We could easily end up with another case like the Sawyer case because so much of this type of thing is murky and uncertain. It is a very troubling situation."

All of which does little for Sawyer, who was dropped by his long-time John Hancock employers and is now facing a prison term of at least a year. To make matters worse, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton ruled last year that prosecutors in Massachusetts were not required to prove that a quid pro quo relationship exists between the gifts a lobbyist gives and the favorable action they receive from the legislature in response. Just the fact that the social relationships exist could be enough to suggest wrongdoing and intent.

Lobbyists, naturally, view the Sawyer case with alarm. "Using Judge Gorton's reasoning any lobbyist could be criminally prosecuted," says SGAC's Jenkins. "He has been convicted because he did as a lobbyist what he was paid to do - he established and developed working relationships with legislators. Even if he went over the gift limits, that should not be viewed as a criminal violation worthy of prison time."

While some critics of the case against Sawyer might argue that gifts or events valued at less than $5 should not constitute a criminal violation or penalty, the U.S. attorney general's office in Boston contends precisely the opposite: Anything not reported or over the amount allowed, even if it is a penny, is a criminal violation. …

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