Would a $10,000, All-Expenses-Paid Trip to France Be Kosher in Other States?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Since this whole issue came up regarding whether it's cool for state legislators to accept an all-expense paid trip from to France from a uranium company, I've been curious to know how other states treat this type of situation. I started with the state I grew up in, Connecticut, because I have a good friend who's a state legislator there and also because I lived there for 15 years or so. The short answer from my friend is that, no, Connecticut legislators are not allowed to do this. I also checked the Connecticut "Guide to the Code of Ethics for Legislators"; here are the relevant provisions:*"As a legislator, there are rules in place regarding accepting gifts from both restricted and
non-restricted donors. In general, you may not accept gifts from restricted donors."
*Restricted donors include "Registered lobbyists," "Individuals or entities doing business with the legislative branch," "Individuals or entities seeking to do business with the legislative branch," and "Individuals or entities engaged in activities regulated by the legislative branch."
This uranium company is certainly engaged in, or attempting to engage in, "activities regulated by the legislative branch." Hence, it's clearly a "restricted donor" under Connecticut ethics guidelines.
*"A gift is defined as anything of value that you (or a member of your family or your staff)
directly and personally receive unless you provide consideration of equal or greater value
(e.g., pay for the item)."
Like, perhaps, a $10,000 trip to France?
*"You may receive payment or reimbursement for necessary expenses if you, in your official capacity, actively participate in an event; for example by giving a speech or presentation, or
running a workshop."
In this case, based on what I've read and heard, the legislators going to France are not giving speeches or presentations, running the event, or anything like that. They are simply guests of the uranium company, with a tour of a "closed mine in western France where uranium was mined for 50 years until the late 1990s" and "several days in Paris" (no uranium mine there!).
Bottom line: this trip would clearly not be legal for a state legislator in Connecticut. Of course, the tradeoff there is that they've got public financing of campaigns, which almost everyone participates in. They've also got nearly 90% contested races for their state legislature, but that's another issue for another discussion...
OK, so that's Connecticut, where it's definitely not legal to take a $10,000, all-expense-paid trip from a corporation. What about another state? How about Wisconsin? See the "flip" for more (short answer: no way this would be legal there).
lowkell :: Would a $10,000, All-Expenses-Paid Trip to France Be Kosher in Other States?
*"The lobbying law imposes numerous restrictions on lobbyists and principals.  In particular, it prohibits lobbyists and principals from furnishing any of the items listed below to legislators or to other elective state officials, agency officials, legislative employees, or candidates for elective state office:* Lodging.
* Transportation.
* Food, meals, beverages, or money.
* Any other thing of pecuniary value"
Clearly, in Wisconsin, this trip would not be legal.
*An exception: "A principal may give and a legislator may accept anything of pecuniary value which is also made available to the general public."
In other words, if the uranium company offered all 8 million Virginians a $10,000, all-expense-paid trip to France, then it would be ok for the legislators to go. Of course, the company would also be bankrupt many times over, but whatever...
*Another exception: "A legislator may receive reimbursement or payment of actual and reasonable expenses from a lobbyist or principal for a published work or for the presentation of a  talk or participation in a meeting, under certain circumstances authorized under the Ethics Code."
Doesn't seem to apply in the case of a $10,000 trip to France with several free days in Paris, etc.
*Also, "A lobbyist or principal may provide educational or informational material to legislators."
Let's just put it this way: if Wisconsin interprets "educational or informational material" as including a $10,000, all-expense-paid trip to France, then their ethics code is a complete joke.
Bottom line: There's essentially no conceivable way that this trip would be legal in Wisconsin.
Also of relevance, in California, "Public officials may not accept gifts of more than $390 from any single source per calendar year. (Reg. 18940.2.)" Also, "most payments by a third party for a public official's travel will count as a gift to the public official subject to the $390 gift limit." Finally, "If a for-profit corporation wishes to pay an official's airfare or other transportation to a foreign country, the rules are very strict. There is no exception for speeches. Generally, the payment is a gift subject to the applicable limit." End of story - this trip would be ILLEGAL in California.