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For Lobbyists, They're Gifts That Keep On Giving

The culture of gift-giving is alive and well in the Texas Capitol, and lobbyists are the chief benefactors.

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Bidness as Usual

This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

In 2011, lobbyist James Frinzi approached state Rep. Rafael Anchia and asked him to carry a bill on electric car charging stations. Anchia agreed, so long as Frinzi got the testimony lined up when the bill came up in committee.

But when the measure came up, no one was there to speak in favor of it, leaving the Dallas Democrat steamed. Not long after, an unexpected and unwanted apology gift from Frinzi arrived in Anchia's office: a baseball signed by former New York Yankee and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.

The culture of gift-giving is alive and well in the Texas Capitol, and lobbyists are the chief benefactors.

They butter up legislative buddies with sports tickets, golf gear and hunting trips. They treat committee staffers and friendly chiefs of staff to spa treatments, cigars and bottles of liquor. They hit up the wedding and baby shower registries of lawmakers and their relatives.

And they never, ever pass up an occasion to deliver flowers.

“There’s a basic psychological principle, that if you associate somebody with pleasure, whether it be a gift or a fancy trip, that you will go out of your way to try and please them, to return the favor,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director for Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group.

Under the state’s ethics code, lobbyists are allowed to give gifts to lawmakers, state employees or their immediate family, as long as the value does not exceed $500 per calendar year. A provision added in 2007 permits a lobbyist to give a gift worth more than $500 if he or she shares the cost with another registered lobbyist, a relatively common practice.

That meant that in 2009, Robert Saunders, a lobbyist for Texas Disposal Systems, could team up with some of his colleagues in the lobby to buy four members of the Texas House .22 caliber semiautomatic rifles from a company that boasts on its website: “Don’t leave civilization without one.”

“I had the ability to go buy a rifle — my background check cleared — so I bought them, paid for them and collected money for them,” Saunders said of the gifts, made to former Reps. Mark Homer, D-Paris; Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville; Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin; and now-deceased Rep. Ed Kuempel, R-Seguin.

That same year, Saunders also purchased Nikon binoculars for all members of the Texas Senate ahead of a safari-themed party thrown at the company’s exotic game ranch and entertainment pavilion near Creedmoor.

“Again, we collected funds from a number of lobbyists, and we had an amount in addition to what we needed to pay for food and entertainment, so I said, ‘Let’s give them gifts,” he said.  

Among lobbyists’ more recent gift-giving, according to their ethics filings:

  • Last year, state Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, a trial lawyer and Houston Democrat, received a $270 high chair for her newborn from Russ Tidwell, the lobbyist for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. Tidwell characterized the lawmaker as a good friend he’d known for years: “I wanted to give her a special gift for her first child.”
  • In 2011, Chris Shields, a longtime lobbyist with a laundry list of clients, gave Gov. Rick Perry more than $350 worth of wine; three years earlier, Shields gave state Rep. Warren Chisum, then the House Appropriations Committee chairman, the mounting crate and shipping for a stuffed goose, valued at more than $350.
  • In 2011, Eric Craven, the lobbyist for the Texas Electric Cooperative, reported giving the clerk for the House State Affairs Committee a spa package valued at more than $350.
  • In 2009, Hugo Berlanga, a former lawmaker and lobbyist with energy, wind and transportation clients, gave current state Rep. Yvonne Davis and then-state Rep. Terri Hodge, both Dallas Democrats, Cowboys football tickets worth a combined $1,500. Berlanga said he had season tickets, and that the seats he gifted to the lawmakers “would’ve been for an exhibition game.”
  • That same year, the lobbyist for the Keystone Ranch in Pearsall gifted Conroe state Rep. Brandon Creighton, a Republican, a dove-hunting trip valued at $300.

“Lobbyists are experts at figuring out what is most important to various members of the Legislature,” Smith said, “and figuring out ways to fill that need so they will get repaid in kind when they need a favor.”

Longtime Austin lobbyist Bill Miller said the point of giving lawmakers and their staff members gifts isn’t nefarious. It’s to “show you’re paying attention, to show you care, to show some degree of connection.”

Miller’s firm, HillCo Partners, doesn’t give “grand gifts,” he said; it sticks to flowers or gift baskets. “If you have to go to great lengths to remind someone that you’re out there, you’re probably not doing much of a job the rest of the time,” he said.

But he said it’s important to note that it’s not just lobbyists trying to curry favor with lawmakers; many lawmakers have come to expect it. “It’s not a one-way street,” Miller added. “They like gifts. They’re not like, ‘Gee, don’t give that to me.’” 

In the case of Anchia and the signed baseball, the gift backfired. Frinzi, who says he missed the hearing because he was at a charity luncheon for children with disabilities, is a big Reggie Jackson fan, and figured it was a perfect gift for Anchia, whom he knew to be “a baseball guy.” But Anchia, who grew up an ardent Cincinnati Reds fans, actually despised the Yankees — and particularly disliked Reggie Jackson. He has no idea where that baseball ended up, he said. 

“It goes to show,” Anchia said, “that not all gestures are appreciated.” 

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