More fall-out from Rep. Kerry Burt arrest

Perhaps you've been following the saga surrounding State Representative Kerry Burt's February arrest on drunken driving charges. Burt told the arresting officer he'd been "drinking with the governor" that evening.  Turns out Burt, as well as Governor Chet Culver, had attended an Iowa Pharmacy Association reception at the Embassy Suites in Des Moines, then adjourned to "Doozie's" in the hotel for dinner. (Culver said last week he had one glass of wine and was home by 9 p.m.; Burt was arrested about five hours later.) 

Turns out the Iowa Pharmacy Association failed to file the required disclosure forms for their legislative reception. Today, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed an ethics complaint against the Iowa Pharmacy Association.  Here's part of the group's news release:

The Iowa Pharmacy Association filed the disclosure paperwork five months late, and only after they were questioned about a $7,127 reception by reporters in the wake of the drunk driving arrest of Waterloo Rep Kerry Burt.

"This disclosure violation is the real scandal," said Hugh Espey, Iowa CCI's Executive Director.  "It deserves the toughest possible sanctions.  We need to send a strong message to the big-money lobbyists that this kind of behavior will no longer be tolerated."

"This is a clear example of the fox guarding the henhouse," said Adam Mason, Iowa CCI's State Policy Organizing Director.  "They deserve the book thrown at them."

Jennifer Jacobs of The Des Moines Register last week was the first to obtain the Pharmacy Association's report for the reception. The document listed $2,438 as being spent on beverages, and that comes out to about $14 per drink if you consider how many people were at the reception.

Late this afternoon, Iowa Pharmacy Association CEO Thomas Temple talked with me on the phone and he said the per drink cost at the reception was much lower, as the group had written down the charges for all the food and beverages for its day-long conference at the hotel — not just the charges for the evening reception for legislators.

According to Temple, the receipts from the hotel indicate the association was charged about $2400 for food and exactly $732 for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages served to the roughly 200 Iowa Pharmacy Association members and 20 to 25 legislators who attended the evening reception.  Each person in attendance was given a ticket for one free beverage, and Temple says that means the per drink cost was $4 to $5. 

"I'm not sure what's really required. We did have legislators who spoke during the day (at the association's convention) and if they had some water or they took a cookie, you've got all of those issues," Temple says, a reference to the Iowa law which set a $2.99 limit on "gifts" to legislators. "Frankly, we erred on the side of trying to be conservative and show all of our costs."

Groups are required to file documents within five days of such an event to disclose how much was spent and, as you now know, the Iowa Pharmacy Association's documents were filed five months late. "It was not intentional. It was not a deliberate action on our part to hide facts or costs from the legislature or the public," he says. "It was just an oversight on the part of our staff that was very busy at that time of year."  

Meanwhile, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement seems to have its sights set not only on the Iowa Pharmacy Association, but on other groups and the disclosure process itself.  See more from its news release below:  

Iowa CCI's initial research has uncovered 26 additional late-filing disclosure violations by lobbyist groups during the 2009 legislative session.  This amount represents nearly one-third of the 90 reports that were filed in 2009.

"Today we are focusing on the Iowa Pharmacy Association because its disclosure violation is the most egregious example of abuse of the law by special-interest lobbyists, particularly because they only filed after they were caught," Mason said. (As mentioned previously in the news release, Adam Mason is CCI's State Policy Organizing Director.)

This emerging and growing political scandal raises new questions about the ability of the House and Senate Ethics Committees to accurately monitor and regulate these types of events.

In 2005, state lawmakers voted to strip oversight powers from the nonpartisan State Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board and task the House and Senate Ethics Committees with oversight responsibilities.  Since then, the number of reported filings have gone down, as has the reported amount of money spent at lobbying events.

Iowa CCI's four-pronged strategy to reduce and eliminate the influence of big money on our political system is: 1.) better reporting, transparency, and disclosure (so everyday folks can see who's trying to wine and dine, and influence, our elected officials); 2.) campaign contribution limits; 3.) public financing of elections; and 4.) better, tougher enforcement when campaign finance laws and rules are violated.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.