TN: Ethics opinions find two lobbying violations

Posted on March 25, 2008 - 7:04am.

from: The Tennessean

Ethics opinions find two lobbying violations
PR firm, ex-Bredesen adviser could be fined

By THEO EMERY and JENNIFER BROOKS • Staff Writer • March 25, 2008

State lobbying rules may have been violated in two high-profile legislative fights, one over Internet wine sales and the other over cable television regulation, according to the Tennessee Ethics Commission.

Two draft opinions — one finding against a former senior adviser to Gov. Phil Bredesen, the other against a high-profile public relations firm in Nashville — represent the first time the state's 1½-year-old Ethics Commission has dealt with such questions over lobbyist regulation.

"These are all very novel situations for this young ethics commission," said Bruce Andro phy, the agency's executive director.

One opinion indicates that Seigenthaler Public Relations violated ethics laws by hosting a Web site aimed at preventing Internet wine sales.

The second opinion suggests that former Bredesen aide Robert Gowan engaged in lobbying. State law requires a one-year "cooling off" ban on lobbying by former top public officials.

Both opinions, which were penned by staff attorneys, must be approved by four members of the six-member commission to be binding. The commission meets this morning. Androphy said it was premature to discuss possible penalties.

Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, a government watchdog group, welcomed both opinions, saying they are important test cases.

"It's going to be good for the public and potential lobbyists to know what the rules are," he said.

In the case of the wine sales opinion, state Sen. Doug Jackson, a Dickson Democrat, and Rep. Curry Todd, a Collierville Republican, asked the commission to look into a flood of e-mails, faxes and phone calls that poured into their offices and fliers mailed to constituents earlier this month, accusing them of encouraging teen drinking.

The messages originated from a group calling itself Tennesseans Against Teen Drinking.

The group's Web site,, appeared to be a grass-roots activism site. In fact, the site was backed by major alcohol lobbying firms: the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee, the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association, and the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association. The liquor industry largely objects to Internet alcohol sales being allowed in Tennessee.

The practice is not new in American politics. Groups that appear on their face to be grass-roots-based, but that are actually underwritten by special interests have become known in the political world as "AstroTurf."

The wholesalers hired Seigenthaler PR, which on Jan. 21 launched the site. Visitors are encouraged to sign an online petition, which sends a form letter to lawmakers urging them to oppose the direct wine sales bill and a separate bill that would allow grocery stores to sell wine.

Jackson, who is co-sponsoring legislation that would permit Internet wine purchases, said many people who contacted his office were surprised to learn that the liquor industry had sponsored the campaign. "The letters and Web site, to me, were very misleading."

Tennessee law requires any group engaged in lobbying to register with the state within seven days. Jackson could find no Seigenthaler employees on the list of registered lobbyists.

The draft opinion concluded that Seigenthaler had been paid to promote the defeat of legislation. The opinion recommended that firm members register as lobbyists and that the wholesalers register as their employer.

Seigenthaler President Amy Seigenthaler said the firm was engaged in good old-fashioned grass-roots activism. "We think this advisory opinion raises serious constitutional questions that will open a Pandora's box
of unintended consequences and lead to the chilling of free speech," she said in the statement.

If the members of the ethics commission agree with the draft ruling, Seigenthaler and the liquor wholesalers could face misdemeanor charges and fines of up to $10,000 for operating as unregistered lobbyists.

Thomas Bernard, president of Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Tennessee, did not return a call for comment.

Williams, of Common Cause, said the ruling would probably be closely scrutinized because of worries that informative Web sites could be seen as lobbying. "It's an area that people are going to be interested in, if not concerned about, as to Web sites and when they're lobbying and when they're just information," he said.
Advice deemed lobbying

The second draft opinion suggests that Gowan may have crossed the line into lobbying when he advised a client, the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association, about pending legislation on statewide cable franchising.

Gowan said that he "respectfully disagrees" with the opinion — which he sought himself from the Ethics Commission — but said that if the commission approves the ruling, he would abide by that decision.

"I was just trying to do the right thing when my activity was questioned," he said. "I wanted to do the responsible thing and ask for an opinion so that I could conform to whatever the ethics commission requires or prohibits."

He left the Bredesen administration last year after serving as the governor's senior adviser for policy and legislation, a cabinet-level position. In December, he joined Southern Strategy Group, a lobbying firm. However, he is not registered as a lobbyist in Tennessee.

Gowan said he advised the cable association on "the lay of the land" in the legislature, and stopped working for it in late February. He said he did not contact public officials himself, and considered his work to be consultation and indirect lobbying, rather than direct lobbying, based on an earlier commission opinion.

According to the opinion, a person who is paid to communicate directly or indirectly with officials in the legislative branch or executive branch to influence legislative or administrative action is engaged in lobbying "and must register as a lobbyist."

Contact Jennifer Brooks at 726-4892 and Theo Emery at 726-448 or

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