Holding government accountable is what we do. And there may be no issue that needs this scrutiny more than the interaction between lobbyists and elected officials.
Salt Lake City’s Michelle Price, who covers the Utah Legislature, was aware of the state’s lax requirements for reporting on lobbying activities and had been looking for a good way to tell that story. She found it when a lawmakers shared on social media and invitation from health care industry lobbyists to legislators to dine at a stylish new downtown restaurant.
Price had heard these dinners take place but she never before had been aware of one in advance. She did some checking with the state lieutenant governor’s office and confirmed that under Utah’s loose lobbying laws, neither the lobbyists nor the lawmakers were required to report their night out. Price's news break went on to explain that no public disclosure is required as long as lobbyists extend their largesse to all members of a committee, a task force or a caucus.
From a seat at the bar, Price watched them arrive, some with their spouses, and be ushered into a private dining room at the upscale bistro.
In the middle of a busy legislative session Price carved out the time to get to the restaurant ahead of the group and from a seat at the bar watched them arrive, some with their spouses, and be ushered into a private dining room at the upscale downtown bistro. She later observed the meal from a vantage point outside on the street while peering through large glass windows. Inside they dined on a prix fixe menu of chicken and Italian dishes that after two and one-half hours totaled $975, paid for by the lobbyists.
The Democratic lawmaker whose tweet tipped Price to the story criticized the practice as giving lobbyists unfair access.
She followed up the next day by interviewing those in attendance and quickly wrote the story using details from the scene and those gleaned from the lawmakers and lobbyists. While one lawmaker reimbursed the lobbyists for the meal and some others did not attend, most lawmakers from the three committees who attended found nothing wrong. They said such dinners are routine social occasions and were surprised that Price would even question them about it. Utah’s House majority leader, who did not attend, acknowledged how such dinners might raise eyebrows, and the Democrat who tweeted out the invitation that put Price on to the story criticized the practice as giving lobbyists unfair access and advantage over the general public. An open government watchdog interviewed for the story called it a "ridiculous exemption."
The story, which ran with photos of the hordes of lobbyists who work the session in Utah, ran on front pages and section fronts of the state's newspapers. Price said it was retweeted far more than any story she has ever done. The House majority leader said the exposure and follow-up questions might prompt lawmakers to begin posting the dinner invitations on House and Senate social event calendars, which are available to the media on request.
For her resourceful reporting, Price wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.