Easing rules on lobbyists a bad idea

John Schickel was already in the Kentucky Senate when disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff explained how political corruption works to the General Assembly.

Government is made up of "ordinary, decent people slowly accommodating themselves to a system that is rife with moral predicaments," the master influencer told lawmakers at an ethics training in January, 2012.

Abramoff, who spent over three years in federal prison for conspiring to bribe members of Congress and others, said the best way to avoid those predicaments is to ban all gifts or contributions to lawmakers by lobbyists and their clients.

Abramoff's suggestions went beyond Kentucky law, which prohibits lobbyists from giving money at any time to sitting legislators or those running for legislative seats; their clients can't give when the General Assemlby is in session but can at other times.

But that's not good enough for Schickel, who is serving his second term with plans to run again in 2016. He and two Libertarian hopefuls filed suit in federal court challenging the restrictions on lobbyists' giving and a $1,000 limit on campaign contributions by others.

Schickel turned to federal court after his unsuccessful attempt to double the campaign donation limit in the last legislative session.

There is a case to be made about raising the donation limit but any proposal must be fully and publically vetted by the General Assembly, which passed the limits in the wake of the BOPTROT scandal in the early 1990s.

BOPTROT resulted in the corruption convictions of 15 sitting or former lawmakers.

It's much harder — indeed almost impossible — to make a case for easing off on the restrictions on lobbyists that also grew out of BOPTROT. As Abramoff well knows, the public will not gain from a cozier, economically enhanced relationship between lobbyists and the legislators they are paid to influence.

Schickel's lawsuit argues that the restrictions violate the First Amendment rights of the lobbyists and himself.

In one of the lawsuit's odder statements, Schickel complains that he "would attend holiday parties, hosted by longstanding friends, who are lobbyists or employ lobbyists," if it weren't for the bothersome restrictions.

As it happens, Schickel needn't sit alone during the holidays. He just can't accept food, drink or other favors without compensating the lobbyists. He could either bring his own holiday cheer or write a check for his share of the entertainment.

This doesn't seem like a huge burden considering what's at stake.

Money, gifts, favors, trips all create obligations that can lead to "moral predicaments" that in turn can mean legislation that favors a well-heeled few over the rest of us.

It's also not an unusual burden. In many private-sector jobs restrictions are imposed based on ethical or economic interests. Buyers must keep a distance from the vendors; many company executives are restricted to avoid insider trading. Remember Martha Stewart's stint in federal prison?

It's remarkable that a legislator is willing to argue that paying his own way for private entertainment or striking a few people from his list of campaign contributors is too great a price to ensure at least the appearance of an untainted legislative process.