Fine Line on Lobbying, Money, Ethics : Since It’s So Murky, Perhaps Sacramento Needs a Better Guide

<i> Barry Keene (D-Benicia) is the majority leader of the California Senate. One of his aides, Terry Frost, is among those reportedly being investigated in the FBI operation</i>

The FBI’s “sting” operation at the state Capitol has focused public attention on the influence of campaign money on the legislative process. It poses once more the ethical and legal dilemmas that arise as lawmakers confront issue advocates.

Few argue against lobbying per se. How else in this complex and diffuse society can legislators learn what particular groups think about particular issues?

Meanwhile, the passage earlier this year of Proposition 73 nullified efforts to limit campaign spending, giving public endorsement to the fund-raising frenzy by rival candidates.

Necessarily, both lobbying and fund-raising are governed by rules, the basic one being that issues and campaign dollars are not to be mixed in the same discussion.


In the heat of the political push and shove, however, lines can get blurred--or exceedingly fine. At what point does forceful advocacy or aggressive fund-raising become inappropriate, unethical or even unlawful? If you think that the answers are always easy, here’s a quick test suggesting that they are not.

The test lists six hypothetical approaches that a lobbyist, amateur or professional, might use to gain a legislator’s support. Circle “E” if you think that an approach is ethical, “N/E” if not:

1. My client would like you to oppose SB 000. It’s a bad bill, and it will hurt people in your district. E N/E

2. If you support SB 000, there’s $2,000 in it for your campaign. If you’re against me, it’s $2,000 for your opponent. E N/E


3. We’ve been friends for a long time. I’ve always been there for you. I really need your help on SB 000. E N/E

4. I’ll support you if you help me on SB 000; I’ll oppose you if you don’t. E N/E

5. My friends contributed thousands to your campaigns over the years. Now we need you on SB 000. E N/E

6. My client is a “major player.” She wants you on board on SB 000. E N/E


Got your answers? Here are mine:

1. Ethical. The lobbyist is doing what he’s supposed to do--explaining how his client feels and a bit about the issue. However, the ethical balance shifts if the lobbyist, as you turn to respond to the pressure of another task, adds, “By the way, I’m planning to buy a table at your annual fund-raiser.” But how to discourage that kind of comment? You can’t very well vote against him if your district’s interests would be injured. You may have a duty to threaten to deny him future access if he mixes votes and money. But you may sell fewer tables at your next fund-raiser.

2. Absolutely unethical . There’s a direct connection between consideration offered and a deed to be done combined with a threat for failure to perform. It’s a felony.

3. Questionable . The merits of the bill have taken a back seat to an appeal based on personal relationship. Was he “there for you” previously with a major financial contribution? What is he implying? Who knows? External circumstances--the nature of the previous relationship or even the tone of voice--may determine.


4. Probably ethical . He’s only stating a common fact of political life--support friends, punish enemies. But it depends on what’s meant by “support.”

5. Probably unethical, certainly heavy-handed but not unlawful . He seems to imply that support is a debt owed for past contributions. On the other hand, he probably wants you to infer (even subconsciously) that a positive action on your part will lead to more contributions in the future.

6. Ethical only if stated to inform the legislator who the client is . Unethical if the tone implies money being dangled . How can you tell? As a psychological ploy, it’s bad business and close to the line ethically, if not legally. What if there’s a client history of large contributions to legislators following favorable action? Does every legislator have a duty to find that out? Given the demands and limitations of the system, does he or she have the time to do so before each vote? Clearly not.

I offer these reflections not to gain public sympathy for the harsh realities of legislative life but to point out how ethically murky things can sometimes get. Except for Question 2, almost any of these pitches could be ethical or unethical, depending on the tone of voice, past practices, the history of the relationship and the understanding of the parties. In an ideal world there would be no need to even consider any connection between issues and contributions. But considering the amounts of money needed to gain and hold office, the possibility invariably creeps into the human mind.


Perhaps the recent campaign reform initiatives, coupled with fear of the Lord and the FBI, will sharpen the focus on ethics. In 1985 I requested Gov. George Deukmejian’s support for an Academy for the Advancement of Public Policy. Its purpose, in part, was to serve as a kind of think tank for the development of legislative procedure and as a forum for the candid discussion of appropriate behavior. Despite bipartisan legislative backing, my request was vetoed as costly and unnecessary. I was astonished then. The idea looks even better today.