2 Investigates: "The $10,000 Club"

Updated:

ATLANTA,None —

As the battle heats up at the state Capitol over a bill to cap lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers, Channel 2 Action News has been digging deep into the numbers.  With no limits in place, gifts from lobbyists have run the gamut.

Georgia State Professor Steve Anthony said he used to see the influence-peddling first-hand. He was once the chief aide to former House Speaker Tom Murphy.

"There were a lot of stories around there about members who tried to see if they could make it the whole 40 days and never buying lunch," Anthony said.

But gaining and retaining coveted access to state lawmakers costs lobbyists a lot more than just lunch.

Last year alone, lobbyists shelled out more than $1.8 million in gifts. That's up nearly 25 percent since 2008. 

Lobbyists bought thousands of meals and everything from airfare, to fancy hotel stays, to football tickets.

"It is legalized bribery," government watchdog William Perry said. He is lobbying lawmakers to pass a bill limiting lobbyists’ gifts to $100.

"They system allows for lobbyists to be more influential than voters. Lobbyists can get doors open," said Perry.

Lobbyists do have to report every gift to the state's transparency commission. Where, with some work, anyone can get online and search to see who's giving to who and how much.

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Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant spent weeks downloading data; sorting it and counting it all up to come up with the “$10,000 Club.”

It's the list of lawmakers who averaged at least that much in gifts from lobbyists over the last three years. At the top of the list: House Speaker David Ralston, R-Gilmer.

Investigative reporter Aaron Diamant asked Ralston if he ever said no to a gift.

"Oh sure," Ralston said. "I don't remember things. I turn down, frankly, more invitations to sporting events and things of that sort than I ever go to."

Still, the value of gifts Ralston did accept since 2009 adds up to more than $56,000.

Since becoming speaker, yearly gifts from lobbyists to Ralston skyrocketed from about $2,200 to more than $36,000.

"I take exception to the notion that that kind of expenditure buys something nobody else has. I just think that's wrong," Ralston said.

On the Senate side, gifts to majority leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, topped the list with more than $36,000 over the last three years.

Rogers refused repeated requests for an interview.

The other lawmakers who rounded out the $10,000 club: Rep. Mickey Channell, Sen. Don Balfour, and Rep. Butch Parrish.

Breakdown of gifts to the $10,000 club:

House Speaker David Ralston:

2011: $36,607.69
2010: $17,879.00
2009:  $ 2,207.65
3 year average: $18,898.11
3 year total: $56,694.34

Rep. Mickey Channell:

2011: $19,889.70
2010: $11,372.50
2009:  $11,206.40
3-year average: $14,156.20
3-year total: $42,468.60

Sen. Chip Rogers:

2011: $12,132.60
2010: $8,283.81
2009:  $16,025.00
3-year average: $12,147.14
3-year total: $36,441.40

Rep. Butch Parrish:

2011: $18,294.10
2010: $8,422.31
2009:  $5,753.54
3-year average: $10,823.32
3-year total: $32,469.95

Sen. Don Balfour:

2011: $13,225.00
2010: $6,852.06
2009  $11,543.70
3-year average: $10,540.52
3-year total: $31,621.56