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We may be about to get another glimpse into “backstage politics.” Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed House Speaker Pro-Tem Richard Morgan to testify before the grand jury. What they want to ask Morgan about is a $100,000 donation “a small cigarette manufacturer” gave “a political group” he created in 2004 – a year after Morgan stopped legislation the manufacturer opposed. Morgan has also been asked to “provide information on 37 individuals or entities,” everyone from video poker interests to lottery venders. (News and Observer;11-14-06).

Prosecutors are following a ‘money trail’ from corporations (and donors) through the labyrinths of the legislature to elected officials political committees. This should lead them into the dark corners of ‘backstage politics’ and give us another unique glimpse how the legislature works.

No one has accused Representative Morgan of doing one thing illegal. So let’s use ‘the cigarette manufacturer’ giving him $100,000 as a hypothetical example.  It was perfectly legal for them to give to Morgan’s political committee. What would be illegal was if  it turned out Morgan said (which no one alleges he did), Give me $100,000 and I’ll stop that bill. That type of ‘quid pro quo’ is illegal but those words are seldom, if ever, spoken. Indeed, they are not necessary. Both sides already know what’s at stake when a donor has a bill pending in the legislature. And, if any explanation is needed, it can be explained in codes.

For instance, the CEO of a trade group – say a lottery vender – might go to a legislator and say, My group wants to stop a bill. How can we do that?

The legislator might say, The first thing you have to do is get active. Get involved in politics.

CEO (puzzled), How do we do that?

Legislator, One way is to give money. And get your members to give money. And, if anyone missed the point a few days later, an invitation to the legislator’s fundraiser arrives in the mail.

This happens almost every day. It’s perfectly legal. The law says ‘quid pro quo’s’ are illegal, but the system allows them as long as they are never explicitly stated, as long as the words, ‘You give this and I’ll do that,’ are never spoken.

Practically there is not much difference between a spoken and unspoken ‘quid pro quo’ – but legally the difference is immense. What’s the solution? No one’s come up with on other than prohibiting donations from people lobbying (or hiring lobbyists) to pass bills. But there’s one big problem with that. The legislators receiving the donations are the ones who get to vote on the law. So far, that idea has been DOA in the legislature.

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