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Special interests pay for officials travel

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Special interests are paying to fly top state officials to attend conferences in destination spots around the world, records show, giving organizers precious access to the very policy makers who are regulating their businesses.

That was the case at the Ritz Carlton in Palm Beach, where an association representing corporate government affairs employees hosted a conference for state officials in 2009.

The group paid approximately $1,100 for state Sen. President Therese Murray to fly to Florida and stay at the Ritz for the conference. In addition to seminars, the event offered lobbyists and government officials a chance to rub elbows at a pool-side ice cream social and at a shotgun golf tournament.

A spokesperson for Murray tells FOX Undercover the conference was valuable and that “there was never an instance of undue influence or access.”

But one government watchdog says influence is just what the organizers of these trips are looking for.

“Special interests, whether they're companies, organizations or individuals are interested in promoting their product, their service or a particular idea or issue that they're concerned about,” said Peter Sturges, former executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

Sturges, who is currently chairman of Common Cause Massachusetts, said special interests hosts these junkets to try and influence people making decisions.

“It's exactly what they're trying to do. The question becomes, is that influence appropriate and is it disclosed appropriately,” he said.

Appropriate is just what House Speaker Robert DeLeo calls his trip to a clambake and conference in Newport, Rhode Island, which came courtesy of the cable provider’s trade and lobbying group, the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association.

The highly-regulated cable industry spent $87,000 in lobbying in Massachusetts in 2009, the year of the clambake, lobbying disclosure records show.

A spokesman for DeLeo said he went mostly to be part of a televised policy discussion, and that attending the conference served met the legal standard for accepting a free trip, which is serving a "legitimate public purpose".

These are just a few of the trips our public officials went on where someone else picked up the tab.

FOX Undercover reviewed records from hundreds of these trips, some of them to exotic locales like China, Austria, and Taiwan, and others to conferences in destination spots like San Francisco and Las Vegas.

And Paris, too.

That's where state Sen. Richard Moore went in 2009 courtesy of the nuclear power industry, a group that spent more than $2 million nationwide on lobbying that year, according to the watchdog group Opensecrets.

The Nuclear Energy Institute paid an estimated $1,500 to fly Moore to the conference. A spokesperson says that had no impact on his decision-making.

Closer to home, the gun lobby hosted a pig roast and sports shooting day in Lunenburg for lawmakers, their staff and family

It's not just corporate interests that pay.

The liberal lobbying group People for the American Way paid for several representatives to attend their young elected officials' conferences.

The National Education Association helped pay for one state representative to attend a conference they organized about standardized testing, the subject of numerous bills on Beacon Hill.

Whatever the reason for the trips, they all accomplish one thing.

“It’s a way to buy access,” Sturges said. “I think the question really is, are the moneys that are expended to pay for travel and an educational conference, do they benefit ultimately the Commonwealth and municipality?”

While officials say their going on these trips benefited the public, it’s not always easy for the public to judge that for themselves.

The trips have to be disclosed, but the records for elected officials’ trips are kept on paper at the State Ethics Commission’s office in Boston, accessible during business hours. Records about appointed officials’ trips are supposed to be kept on file in their boss’s office.

Sturges says the records should be online for everyone to see.

 

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