ICYMI: Spotlight PA: One ritzy fundraiser shows how tough selling lobbying reform in Pa. will be

By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Brad Bumsted and Sam Janesch of The Caucus

May 4, 2021

HARRISBURG — For the first time, the Pennsylvania legislature’s top leaders are expected to throw their weight behind reining in the influence of lobbyists who also moonlight as political consultants, blurring the worlds of politics and policy in the Capitol.

In the coming weeks, House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman plan to unveil a proposed ban on the practice as part of a lobbying reform package. The hope, the Republicans have said, is to restore public faith in government.

Yet even as the final details of the plan are being penned, Corman is jetting off to a ritzy fundraiser organized by one in a trio of companies that has cornered the market on the business practice Corman’s lobbying reform legislation aims to stop. The Harrisburg-based firms, called The Mavericks, fundraise for elected officials, run their political campaigns, then lobby them once they are in office.

The $5,000-a-ticket fundraiser will be held this week on a PGA tour golf course in Arizona, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by The Caucus and Spotlight PA.

For Corman, who made transparency a cornerstone of his agenda when he ascended to the Senate’s top job earlier this year, the fundraiser could undercut the message that he is serious about ushering in good-government reforms.

“They [Corman and Cutler] deserve credit for recognizing the problem, but it is going to take some effort to make it work with any degree of credibility,” said Barry Kauffman, the former executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which advocates for lobbying transparency and government accountability. The proof will be in the details of the legislation, he added.

Jason Thompson, Corman’s Capitol spokesperson, said he could not comment on campaign matters. He did say lobbying reform is one of the Republican senator’s “highest legislative priorities” this session and many hours have been dedicated to fine-tuning and perfecting the final plan.

Records show Corman’s main campaign committee and a separate leadership committee he runs paid Maverick Finance and Red Maverick a combined $932,000 from 2015 to 2020.

Over the past year, Corman has come under scrutiny for his close ties to Ray Zaborney. The senator hired Zaborney’s lobbying partner as his chief of staff last fall and helped raise money at a California golf outing for a secretive nonprofit Zaborney launched that has engaged in some political activity.

In emails to The Caucus and Spotlight PA last week, Zaborney said that in mid-April, he quietly shed his lobbying affiliation. He said he did so after consulting with Corman.

Once a relative unknown, Ray Zaborney has over the past decade become one of the go-to operatives for electing Republican candidates.

“I’m not a registered lobbyist effective April 16,” he wrote. “In consultation with Senator Corman and in an effort to comply with the bill I believe he will be introducing, I have deregistered and will not lobby the legislature or administration.”

Referring to previous reporting by The Caucus and Spotlight PA on his ties to Corman, Zaborney added: “I hope I haven’t ruined your 18th installment of this story, but perhaps you’ll spend some of that time actually looking at other firms who refuse to take the steps that we have all these years. I doubt it tho.”

When asked whether Corman had given him advance notice of the legislation, Zaborney downplayed his initial statement: “I didn’t consult in a ‘what should I do’ manner, I consulted on getting a sense of if there was a part that banned political consulting and lobbying BECAUSE MY PLAN WAS TO VOLUNTARILY COMPLY IF THERE WAS.”

Through his Capitol spokesperson, Corman said it is no secret in Harrisburg that he has been working on lobbying reform, and that details about it are getting out.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington, D.C., said there has been a push nationally to ban lobbyists from campaign fundraising — and for good reason.

“That’s part and parcel of the influence-peddling game,” Holman said. “It is almost funny if it weren’t so sad.”

The exact details of Corman and Cutler’s reform package have yet to be revealed publicly.

And while a memo seen by The Caucus and Spotlight PA show the leaders favor banning lobbyists from also working as political consultants, it was silent on whether these consultants would be prevented from having a financial stake in lobbying firms.

While Zaborney is no longer a lobbyist, he would not say whether he still owns or retains a financial interest in the lobbying company he founded, which over the years has grown into one of the Capitol’s go-to firms, representing major clients from the cannabis, gambling, energy, and health-care sectors.

He also would not say whether Jen Zaborney, who had previously run Maverick Finance, continues to have financial or professional ties with the company, saying only that neither she nor he receive “compensation” from it.

Read the full piece here

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