Sunday, February 17, 2008
Lobbyists doing legislator's work
- Heading back to the debate in Appalachia
- Redistricting process must be taken from pols
- A shutdown remains a very real possibility
- U.S. Navy Vets case argues for campaign limits
From the RoundTable blog
On Jan. 18, we ran a commentary under the byline of Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. The commentary supported an effort to transfer permitting power from Virginia's citizens environmental boards to the director of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Recently, we discovered Wagner didn't write the commentary.
That's not terribly unusual. Busy senators, delegates, representatives and governors often have staff members ghostwrite for them. I don't like the practice -- but it's not all that different from President Bush mouthing the words written by a speechwriter at his State of the Union address. I assume that Bush directed the process and guided the content and direction, and I know he bears ultimate responsibility for the content. I assume the same when a staff member writes for an elected official.
But Wagner's piece was different. It wasn't written by a member of his staff. It was written by an energy lobbyist whose clients stand to gain if the legislation the commentary supported passes the General Assembly.
Andrea Hopkins, opinion editor of the Bristol Herald-Courier, unraveled the mystery when a nearly identical commentary was sent to her by Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell County, after Wagner's piece was in The Roanoke Times. She found the same commentary, supposedly written by Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta County, in yet another newspaper.
As Hopkins wrote in a Feb. 3 column discussing the incident, it's easy to understand why an industry lobbyist would want someone else's byline on his work: "An op/ed by a paid mouthpiece of the power industry will be read with a more critical eye than one written by a supposed public servant."
It's not so easy to understand why elected officials would sign their names to something written by a lobbyist. Perhaps the practice of lobbyists writing actual legislation has become so widespread that this seems like an innocent outgrowth.
If I had my druthers, I'd rather see lobbyists ghostwrite commentary than legislation. But neither should be acceptable to the citizens of Virginia. We pay our representatives for original work, not to parrot special interests.
I called Sen. Wagner to find out how someone else's commentary ended up in our newspaper under his name.
He was absolutely unapologetic. Wagner said he didn't have time to write the piece so he asked the lobbyist to write it for him. He outlined exactly what he wanted to say, then had an aide edit the piece when it came back.
Asked why he used a lobbyist instead of an aide, Wagner said, "The lobbyist was familiar with the issue. He knew exactly how I felt about it."
According to the Bristol Herald-Courier, though, Puckett said he had asked for the piece to be put together, and he did not authorize Wagner to sign onto it.
When I asked Wagner how nearly identical pieces ended up published under the names of two other legislators, he said I should check the dates when the pieces were sent out. A conversation with Hopkins confirmed that she received Wagner's piece before Puckett's.
Hopkins said she noted striking similarities between the two pieces, and after a Google search turned up the other commentaries, she turned it over to her paper's news department for a follow-up. A reporter discovered that the attached file listed August Wallmeyer, a lobbyist, as the originator. When confronted with that, Puckett admitted he'd had "help" with the piece.
"Augie is one of the people who helped write that," Puckett told the paper. "We didn't sit down in a room and write this. Augie is the one who brought it to me. I OK'd it. I take full responsibility for it."
So there's a little bit of a mystery about how this piece originated. Wagner said it was his idea. Puckett said it was his. Wallmeyer admits it came from his computer, but told the Herald-Courier he was little more than a typist.
So maybe Wallmeyer wrote the piece, and pitched it a little too freely. Or maybe he wrote it at Wagner's behest, then decided to recycle it when Puckett asked for something on the same topic. Who knows?
What I know is that several legislators took credit for something they didn't write. Out here in the real world, we call that plagiarism.
Apparently, in Richmond, it's business as usual.
I asked Wagner if he found it as acceptable for lobbyists to write legislation as he did commentaries.
"That's pretty much the norm around here," he said.
The norm needs changing. We'll do our part here. You won't have to wonder who ghostwrote the next commentary you see by Wagner on our pages. His submissions are no longer welcome.
Radmacher is the editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.