RALEIGH As budget chairmen last year, Harold Brubaker and Richard Stevens were among the most influential men in the state legislature, powerful because they held the state’s purse strings and respected by their peers because of their institutional knowledge.
This year, they are beginning new careers as lobbyists, arguing for the causes of corporations and interest groups before their former colleagues.
To do so, they took advantage of a loophole in a state law that imposes a six-month cooling-off period between the time a lawmaker leaves office and when he or she can hang out a lobbying shingle. Brubaker and Stevens resigned before their terms ended so they could start lobbying almost immediately when the legislature convenes.
That practice, in the view of some, renders the cooling-off period almost meaningless. And it provides well-heeled interest groups, who can afford the services of heavyweights such as Brubaker or Stevens, a major advantage in legislative debates.
“The biggest problem is the perception of citizens that the system is rigged against them for somebody who has money and resources,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “I think that is a large part of what the tea party is about – that there are people who are gaming the system.”
Common practice in state capitals
The revolving door has been a common practice in most state capitals, including Raleigh, where for decades some of the most influential lobbyists have been former lawmakers – Tom White, Sam Johnson, John Jordan, Zeb Alley and Al Adams, to name just a few. More recently, the lobbying ranks have included ex-legislators Chuck Neely, Tim McDowell, Connie Wilson, Steve Metcalf and Sandy Sands.
But the practice has come under scrutiny amid ethical concerns about lawmakers having too much influence on their recent colleagues and legislative staffs. Thirty-five states have a cooling-off law that prevents a lawmaker from going straight from the legislature to lobbying, according to the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.
The center, which recently reviewed those laws across the country, found them “riddled with loopholes, narrowly written or loosely enforced.”
North Carolina’s law, passed in 2005, has the shortest cooling-off period.
Former Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Cary Democrat, said the intent of the six-month period was to keep a lawmaker from lobbying in the next session. Weiss, the measure’s chief sponsor, said she supported a one-year period but couldn’t garner support for it.
“Although six months was progress, because we got some sort of cooling-off period, (it) really was not enough,” she said.
“It just doesn’t pass the sniff test when people are able to come right around the revolving door and come right back in,” said Weiss, who did not seek re-election in November and is now back in private law practice. “It really is a matter of people’s perception and trust of government.”
‘Just say “Yes”’
The six-month cooling-off period has proven easy to circumvent.
Brubaker, the state’s only Republican House speaker in the 20th century and a veteran of 35 years in the House, resigned his seat in July rather than serving to the end of his term in December. Brubaker, 66, had most recently been chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Because he resigned in July, Brubaker, who has his own firm Brubaker and Associates, will be able to begin lobbying this month, though he has not yet registered with the Secretary of State’s office. His cooling-off period occurred when the legislature was not in session.
In fact, Brubaker used the six months to his advantage.
Under state law, lobbyists are not permitted to contribute to legislative candidates. But since Brubaker was not yet a lobbyist, he made contributions to several Republican candidates – $4,000 each to House Speaker Thom Tillis and Rep. Julia Howard of Mocksville, $2,000 to his successor, Rep. Allen McNeill of Asheboro, and $800 to Rep. Dana Bumgardner of Gastonia, according to campaign finance records.
The contributions were first reported by the Center for Public Integrity. The center also reported on a retirement party thrown in Asheboro in September.
Brubaker, a real estate appraiser and cattle breeder by profession, was feted by his former colleagues, including Tillis, who praised him as his mentor.
“Just remember one thing,” Brubaker quipped, according to an account in The Courier-Tribune of Asheboro. “When I come visit you in the future, just say ‘Yes.’ ”
Brubaker could not be reached for comment.
Is six months enough?
While Brubaker has always had a reputation as bit of a dealmaker in the House, Stevens has long been regarded as one of the straightest arrows in the legislature – a moderate Republican from Cary whom both parties tried to recruit to run for political office.
Stevens, a lawyer who was Wake County’s manager for 16 years, served in the Senate for 10 years. He was co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He announced in February that he would not seek re-election and resigned his seat in September.
Stevens, 64, said he resigned so he would be able to lobby during this session. He will be eligible in early March. He joined Smith Anderson, Raleigh’s largest law firm, which mainly does corporate work but does some lobbying.
Along with lobbying, Stevens said he will be involved in government contracts and land-use planning.
Stevens said he understands the argument for a cooling-off period, and said he applied a self-imposed one-year period during which he did no county-related consulting work when he left his job as Wake County manager. He said he thought the six-month period for lawmakers was reasonable.
Since he resigned, Stevens said he has been careful not to contact potential clients or engage in any political activity or fundraising events. He did not attend Gov. Pat McCrory’s inauguration.
He also has avoided media interviews and said he was reluctant to comment for this article because he did not want to be seen as soliciting clients.
Stevens said there is a valid argument for former legislators to become lobbyists. As a lawmaker, Stevens said, he probably dealt with 500 issues during the legislative session, and it was helpful to have someone he trusted share the facts and explain an issue to him. The best lobbyists, Stevens said, will lay out the pros and cons, and then make the case for their clients.
Others have done it before
Other lawmakers also have resigned early to get a jump on lobbying, such as former Rep. Jeff Barnhart, a Republican from Concord, who resigned in September 2011 to go to work for McGuireWoods Consulting. Former Republican Sen. Debbie Clary of Cherryville resigned in January 2012, enabling her to begin lobbying earlier.
Even reformers say there must be a balance, so as not to discourage qualified people from seeking public office, where they often serve at considerable financial sacrifice.
North Carolina legislators make a modest amount of money – $13,951 per year plus $559 per month expense allowance – but are required to work long hours that often make it hard for people with careers to serve. It is often difficult to attract people with management and business experience and who are still in their prime, such as Stevens and Brubaker, to serve.
All but 15 states have some cooling-off period that prevents legislators from resigning one day and lobbying the next.
Florida has a two-year period for ex-legislators, although that has not stopped lawmakers from working for lobbying firms or lobbying the executive branch, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
At least eight former Florida House speakers went on to lobby, according to the Orlando Sentinel. One of them, John Thrasher, earned $1.6 million in 2008, compared to his previous legislative salary of $30,000, according to the paper.
The Detroit Free Press tracked the careers of 291 officials elected from 1992-2004 and found that 71 of them, or nearly one-quarter, ended up either registered as lobbyists or working as consultants or paid advocates.
“The prestige and dollar amounts that former legislators attract as lobbyists has gone up, so it puts increasing pressure on legislators to become lobbyists,” said Pinsky of the North Carolina reform group.
Pinsky would like to see North Carolina’s law changed so a lawmaker would have to sit out a session before returning to lobby his or her former colleagues. Every state with a revolving-door law except North Carolina has at least a one-year waiting period, Pinsky said.
“Part of the problem,” Pinsky said, “is if you are a legislator who has run a budget committee and knows what is basically insider information, you’ve got information over everybody else.”