ATLANTA — An annual gathering Sunday near the Statehouse will offer lobbyists, corporations and anyone who springs for a $20 ticket a traditional Southern meal and the chance to mingle with the state’s political leaders. But the event also shows how, under current law, Georgia’s lobbyists can avoid disclosing some expenditures.
Sponsored by a nonprofit called Friends of Agriculture Foundation Inc., the Wild Hog Supper raises money for the Georgia Food Bank Association and offers politicians and lobbyists face time with the state’s leaders, including Gov. Nathan Deal.
It’s also a chance for corporations to endear themselves to legislators before the General Assembly returns to session Monday. Although the foundation’s leaders are Statehouse lobbyists, the people and firms who subsidize the meal do not have to disclose their expenses because of how Georgia defines lobbyists. The meal, expected to be attended by hundreds of people, has been a fixture for half a century and is the sole purpose of the foundation, which dates back only a few years.
Under current law, people advocating for or against legislation must register as lobbyists if they spend more than 10 percent of their monthly working time lobbying or if they spend $1,000 or more annually on those activities.
Because the nonprofit foundation does not push for legislation, it is exempt from reporting, said Don Cargill, a lobbyist who serves as the foundation’s treasurer.
“We’re paying for the thing, and how much any one of the friends gives, that’s confidential information,” Cargill said of the dinner.
“There is no lobbying on the part of the Friends of Agriculture,” he added. “There is no lobbying on behalf of the Food Bank. They are getting the proceeds of this event.”
Legally defining a lobbyist will be part of the debate as Georgia lawmakers consider changes to the state’s ethics rules. House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, said this week that he would propose legislation forcing more people to register as lobbyists, though he did not reveal specifics. Other Georgia watchdog groups have advocated for similar moves.
Some organizations voluntarily disclose their funding. The Georgia Electric Membership Corp. paid nearly $1,700 as one of several co-sponsors of last year’s event. The Georgia Agribusiness Council spent $500.
“We don’t feel like disclosure is a wall of shame,” said Bryan Tolar, president of the Agribusiness Council.
At the Wild Hog supper, anyone who pays the $20 admission fee can help themselves to the food table and mingle with Deal, the state’s legislative leaders and often its Congressional delegation. Privately lobbying is unlikely in the elbow-to-elbow crowds and loud din as people balance platefuls of food.
“I think of it as a tradition, as a kickoff for the session, and I don’t pay attention about who pays for it,” said Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, a former Democratic lawmaker who has a ticket for this year’s dinner. Her father was a Congressman and her grandfather a state legislator, so she grew up with the events. “It is not one-on-one schmoozing. It is ‘Do you want to have your face seen at this event?’ And anyone who is anyone in Georgia politics must show up.”
The leaders of Common Cause Georgia argue the dinner is part of the capitol’s influence game, though Cargill said it is strictly a welcoming reception for lawmakers and meant to focus attention on the state’s agriculture industry.
William Perry, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, said spending on the supper should be disclosed.
“I think they know darn good and well that being one of the people who puts on the Wild Hog dinner helps open doors,” Perry said. “I think everyone can see it’s about influence, it’s not about celebration. It’s not about the kindness of their hearts.”