Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Being co-chairman of the international committee for the Council of State Governments comes with a few perks for Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas — such as an all-expenses-paid trip to Brazil.
Conklin was part of a five-member delegation that just returned from the trip sponsored by CSG, the U.S. State Department and the Brazilian government as an international relationship-building exercise.
Also on the trip, however, was a small cadre of Nevada lobbyists who got to spend eight days touring the Brazilian countryside, dining and socializing with the elected officials they’re paid to influence.
Conklin, the only Nevada elected official on the trip, said he had little interaction with the lobbyists. He said he spent his time learning about the burgeoning tourism opportunities for Nevada in Brazil, how the country conducts elections, its financial markets and how it approaches everything from energy to economic development.
Likewise, Richard Perkins, a former lawmaker-turned-lobbyist who represents mining, gaming and other major Nevada industries, said he didn’t see the trip as a lobbying opportunity.
“Trust me, I’m not going to fly 22 hours to Brazil to go lobby Marcus,” Perkins said. “If I want to talk to Marcus privately, I’m going to drive across town.
“I can tell you, unequivocally, that I cannot recall in the entire time we were there talking about a public policy issue in front of the Legislature with Marcus.”
But transparency advocates point out that lobbying isn’t simply about making appointments with lawmakers to discuss policy issues in their office. It’s about building relationships that guarantee access when it is needed.
“When you’re on a trip like this, lobbyists have essentially a captive audience,” said Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C. “They’re on a trip for a long time and get incredibly more access to lawmakers than they would in the capital.
“Beyond that, since it’s not a requirement to disclose that they are lobbying them or have met with these folks, it really doesn’t give the citizens an opportunity to know how their lawmakers are being influenced.”
Other elected officials on the trip were Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and legislator Julie Rosen. Lobbyists not listed as a part of the official delegation but who traveled and took part in some of the sanctioned activities were Barrick Gold lobbyists Be-Be Adams and Sean Gamble.
Conklin said his itinerary was so full of official events that he spent little time with the Nevada lobbyists.
“I don’t decide who goes on these trips, that’s strictly a CSG decision,” Conklin said. “My only time spent with them was time traveling or if they happened to attend one of the programmed meetings. And it was all group stuff. There was no time spent just with a lobbyist.”
The Council of State Governments is a network of regional organizations focused on helping governments develop public policy.
Kelley Arnold, CSG spokeswoman, said the organization typically invites “private sector” representatives on international trips to build public-private relationships within the host countries as well.
“They provide a point of view from the private sector so we get perspectives from all sides,” Arnold said.
As for lobbying on such trips, Arnold said it’s not much of a concern for the organization.
“It’s not any different from any day-to-day activities in any state capital anywhere in the country,” Arnold said. “I don’t think it’s special access. But I can see where the perception would come from.”
Allison doesn’t buy it. During session, lawmakers are busy with committee meetings, votes, constituent services and other responsibilities. An eight-day trip to Brazil is different.
“I’m sure it’s much nicer to lobby lawmakers on a Brazilian beach than in the halls of the Capitol,” Allison said.
Nevada doesn’t require lobbyists to report money they spend on lawmakers when the Legislature isn’t in session.
State Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, introduced a bill this year that would have required off-session reporting. Although the state Senate passed the bill unanimously, it was killed in committee on the Assembly side.
“I think interactions between lobbyists and lawmakers need to be disclosed more fully,” Leslie said. “I’ve never heard of a CSG trip like this. But I think trips of this nature ought to be disclosed and certainly any expenditures made on behalf of a lawmaker by a lobbyist should be disclosed no matter what country it’s in or when it happens.”
CSG picked up Conklin’s expenses, and Perkins and other lobbyists paid their own. But both Conklin and Perkins acknowledged they may have bought each other drinks during their limited free time at the bars.
“Did I buy him a glass of wine or a beer? I probably did,” Perkins said. “But it wasn’t any grand lavish dinner or bottle of Dom Pérignon. And, honestly, he probably bought me a beer or two.”