Column: Louie Lobbyist pitches campaign travel investment

Having heard a rumor about Louie Lobbyist planning a new business venture, I called to ask if it was true and was advised he is “exploring an innovative concept” inspired by recent attention given to legislators making investments with campaign funds and taking trips outside the state with expenses covered by friendly folks who happen to be advocates on public policy issues.

A bit of background:

The campaign financial affairs of former state Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, ousted as a legislator for other reasons last month involving what might have been attempts at non-financial affairs, are reportedly under investigation by both state and federal officials. One aspect of the probe is Durham’s investment of campaign money in business ventures — one of them founded by Andy Miller, a wealthy fellow who has been a big-time donor to political campaigns.

Investment of campaign funds is perfectly legal in Tennessee. The state-level Durham investigation is aimed at finding whether, in the process of investing, the ex-lawmaker ran afoul of a law that prohibits diverting campaign money to personal use. The feds are apparently trying to determine whether he paid appropriate taxes.

Also recently, The Tennessean has reported on out-of-state travel by legislators with costs covered by others. The friendly hosts included school voucher advocate Mark Gill, who hosted lawmakers at his Gulf Coast condo in 2014, and Miller, who is concerned with Islamic influence in government and picked up the tab for a 2011 legislator voyage that rambled from Michigan to Europe. House Speaker Beth Harwell was among legislators taking a trip to North Carolina to see private schools there with Lee Barfield, a politically active Nashville lawyer who paid for the private plane.

These proclaimed “educational” expeditions were completely legal and proper under relevant state laws, though they would have been prohibited if a registered lobbyist was sponsoring them. Louie Lobbyist says this is another example of blatant discrimination against the honorable profession of influence peddling and “probably unconstitutional.”

That problem, Louie said, would not be remedied by a change in the law, as advocated by Harwell and others, to require public disclosure of such free trips.

“That would still be unequal treatment under the law. It would be illegal for lobbyists who do the right thing by registering to take a legislator on a trip, but anyone who doesn’t register can,” said Louie. “We’re citizens, too.”

Well, I replied, you’ve always said the law prohibiting direct political contributions by lobbyists to legislators is unconstitutional. But nobody’s ever challenged the law in court and you guys have gotten around it with lobbying firms setting up political action committees — or serving as advisors or treasurers for clients and their PACs.

“Exactly. That was an anti-lobbying discrimination that has been resolved by innovation to the satisfaction of everyone — the lobbying community, the client community, the donor community and the legislators. And that’s my concept here; out-of-the-box thinking applied to campaign fund investments and sponsored travel for legislator educational purposes.”

So what’s the concept?

“Setting up a firm — working title, Educational Opportunity Investments LLC — that would be available to accept investments of campaign money and/or personal funds from individual legislators and others. Maybe we’d have a 501(c)(3) or a 501(c)(4) nonprofit affiliate. Still thinking about that. The focus would be on promotion of educational travel to tourist destinations by Tennesseans, and tourism businesses outside the state would be invited to seek recommendations, for a fee, of course. Naturally, investors would want to see the sites considered for recommendation first-hand in a trip that would be deductible as a business expense for federal tax purposes.

“And, hey, you know the governor was saying just the other day that every dollar the state invests in tourism promotion results in a $19 return on investment in tax revenue, or something like that. Here, we’re taking that established fact and privatizing, applying it to out-of-state concerns. Knowing government incompetence, imagine the return on investment for a private company! This could be a gold mine. And all the important communities can benefit.

“I just might be able to get you in on the ground floor with a very modest investment. Interested?”

Well, it is interesting. But let me think about it.

Note: This column originally appeared in the News Sentinel Oct. 9, 2016.

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