By BETH RUCKER Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A comprehensive ethics law passed in the wake of a federal investigation into corruption in state government that netted five sitting or former lawmakers has done much to change the atmosphere at the state Capitol.
But no matter how strong legislators make the state's ethics rules, there will always be a few lawmakers trying to get around the law, said Rep. Frank Buck, a longtime proponent of ethics reform and an author of the 2006 ethics law.
"I think it improved things," Buck, D-Dowelltown, said. "But you can bet your ears that the ink was not dry on that thing and there was already some trying to figure out a way around it."
The FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting became public in May 2005, when Democratic Sens. John Ford, Ward Crutchfield, Kathryn Bowers, Republican Rep. Chris Newton and former Democratic Sen. Roscoe Dixon were arrested and charged with accepting bribes to influence legislation.
By last week, the lawmaker cases were over with all those charged pleading guilty except Ford and Dixon, who were convicted at trial.
The arrests led to a special session of the General Assembly the following January that produced new laws restricting lobbyist spending on lawmakers, requiring more stringent financial disclosure from public officials and lobbyists and creating the Tennessee Ethics Commission to oversee many of the new requirements.
Buck said the biggest change he's seen has been in the attitude of his colleagues. He said the culture at the Capitol was one where many legislators would "look the other way" when it came to unethical situations.
"It took the big scandal and the anger of the public to right the course to make these politicians recognize the obvious," Buck said. Bruce Androphy, who began work as the Ethics Commission's first executive director in October, said he's encountered some minor resistance from lawmakers to the new regulations, which he attributes to misunderstandings about and the newness of the law.
But for the most part lawmakers and lobbyists have become more aware of whether their actions could be seen as questionable, he said.
"Because of the Tennessee Waltz and because of the extra scrutiny, many people have been extremely cautious," Androphy said.
For its part, the Ethics Commission has met more than two dozen mandates it was required by the new law to carry out soon after forming, such as developing ethics complaint forms and ethics training for lawmakers and lobbyists.
But it has struggled with its own transparency and adherence to open government laws in failing to grant a records request and proposing to meet privately.
Androphy said the state's lobbyists, which number more than 500, have shown to be accepting of the new law, which affected them with the most changes. He said the commission regularly receives calls from lobbyists or their employers with questions about deadlines and information needed.
"They want to do the right thing," Androphy said. Two others who pleaded guilty in the Tennessee Waltz investigation, Barry Myers and Charles Love, were working as lobbyists on behalf of the bogus company E-Cycle set up by the FBI in its sting, providing bribe money to lawmakers.
Love was a registered lobbyist, though not registered to work on behalf of E-Cycle. Myers was not registered as a lobbyist.
Lobbyists are now banned from making campaign contributions to lawmakers and from directly spending money on a lawmaker, meaning the longtime practice of a lobbyist taking a lawmaker or two out to dinner is now illegal.
Now, if a lobbyist's employer wants to treat a lawmaker, that company or association must hold an event to which all lawmakers are invited and publicly disclose the event's cost, which must be less than $50 per lawmaker.
Mark Greene, a lobbyist whose clients include the Tennessee Lobbyists Association and the Tennessee Pharmacists Association, said the so-called practice of "wining and dining" was slowly dying anyway. "I think it reflected what was already becoming a reality," he said.
"(Wining and dining) was pretty much wide open when I got here 20, 22 years ago. Now you still go out to dinner, but the legislators pay for themselves."
Greene said the biggest changes for lobbyists have been the increased paperwork that came with extra financial disclosure and the extra fees to lobby - $100 for lobbyist registration, $100 for lobbyist employers and $100 lobbyist training registration.
Buck said he thinks the ethics reform needs to go one step farther in creating public funding of campaigns, which he says can be done for "about the price we all spend on chewing gum."
Without campaign finance reform, there will always be a chance that lawmakers will be beholden to money, he said.
"Either you have to be independently wealthy or you have to cater to the special interests for donations," he said.