Gift ban makes breakfast costly for N.C. lawmakers

North Carolina's Democratic delegates moved through a morning buffet line this week, enjoying a free breakfast courtesy of AT&T.

All, that is, except a handful of state legislators and staffers.

They paid $22 for the same plate of bacon, eggs and fruit.

“It gets to be absurd,” says state Rep. Dan Blue of Raleigh. “I don't mind paying for breakfast, and I don't mind paying twice what the breakfast was worth. But you have to wonder why.”

The reason is a “gift ban” included in a 2006 state ethics law that governs what legislators can accept from outside parties. It's similar to new federal restrictions on members of Congress.

The laws offer a confusing thicket of regulations just as opportunities for gifts, free meals and entertainment abound at the national conventions. The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation has tracked more than 400 parties at both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

“I can take a coffee mug but not a T-shirt, (or) the other way around,” says U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh. “I can't keep it straight.”

Gerry Cohen, the legislature's top bill-drafter and a member of the Democratic platform committee, also has had to comply with the new state laws. He compares it to his experience as a student caught up in protests at the 1968 convention.

“Dealing with the tear gas was easier than trying to figure out the ethics laws,” he says.

Jim Black's legacy

A 2007 federal ethics law bars lobbyists from paying for gifts and meals for members of Congress and their staffs.

Under the state law, companies with registered lobbyists in North Carolina can offer nothing of value unless specifically exempted. The law is designed to prevent lobbyists and the companies they represent from wining and dining small groups of legislators.

But those lobbyists can continue to offer food and drink at more broadly attended or so-called public events. That is, organized gatherings open to the public to which all legislators or employees are invited.

Before the convention, state Rep. Tricia Cotham of Charlotte contacted more than 20 event sponsors reminding them of the new law.

Most, such as breakfast sponsors Waste Management and Merck, complied. Cotham said they invited even those legislators back home, 2,000 miles from Denver, thereby complying with the law's exemption.

“I'm completely comfortable with everything,” Cotham says. “It does require more effort on my part… But I want to make my district proud.

“My district is a little more hypersensitive about that because of Jim Black.”

Cotham succeeded Black, the former House speaker whose legal troubles helped lead to the new laws.

Singling out lawmakers

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause and a leading advocate of the ethics reform, says the new rules should follow legislators wherever they go.

“If a lawmaker crosses the borders of North Carolina, it's not that the lobbying laws no longer apply,” he said. “The public doesn't distinguish between being wined and dined at conventions or here in Raleigh. I'm glad legislators are being mindful.”

Rep. Martha Alexander of Charlotte, a delegate, says lawmakers hadn't “thought ahead to the convention.” There are about 10 legislators among the state's 134 delegates.

Event sponsors, she said, “aren't doing it for legislators, they're doing it for a larger group.”

Blue agrees. “You wonder how much sense it makes to segregate or separate elected officials,” says Blue, who suggests lawmakers refine the law to exempt events such as party conventions. “When you get legislation like that, you need to figure out where you need to tweak it,” he says. “The citizens of North Carolina expect you to have common sense.”

Staff writer Mark Johnson contributed.