FRANKFORT — Lobbyists of the General Assembly are forbidden by state law from making campaign contributions to candidates for the Kentucky House or Senate.
But they are allowed to give contributions to state political parties, which this year have no higher priority than electing their candidates in the high-stakes races that will decide control of the Kentucky House.
And most major lobbyists are taking advantage of the opportunity.
A Courier-Journal analysis shows that 45 of Kentucky’s top 50 lobbyists contributed a combined total of $427,471 to the Republican and Democratic parties since Jan. 1, 2015, with the Republican Party of Kentucky getting 58 percent of that total.
The largest lobbyist donor during that period by far was John McCarthy, general partner of McCarthy Strategic Solutions, who with his wife gave $45,000 – all to the Kentucky GOP, which is trying to wrest control of the Kentucky House away from Democrats.
McCarthy was paid $479,454 in fees this year through Aug. 31, according to the Legislative Ethics Commission, to advance the interests of 52 different clients including Altria Group (Philip Morris US), KentuckyOne Health and Jefferson County Public Schools with state lawmakers.
A former chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, McCarthy said he gives big because “the Republican Party of Kentucky gave me my first opportunity in my career and I always believe in giving back to organizations that have helped me out.”
He said he gives to help his party and it’s up to the party to decide whether to emphasize state legislative races. “It’s completely legal,” he said. “… But as a donor I don’t have any role or say on how they spend their money.”
McCarthy also is a member of the Republican Party of Kentucky’s Executive Committee, but he said in that role he plays no part in deciding how the party sets priorities or spends its money. “The executive committee does not do any decision making of the party, that’s done by the professionals that the executive committee and party decides to hire.”
Dave Levinthal, senior reporter for the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, likened lobbyist political contributions to “an entry fee.”
“It improves your chances for face time with a person you are trying to influence on behalf of a client, which can be exponentially more valuable than the dollar figure of the contribution,” he said.
Levinthal noted that Frankfort’s rules are more restrictive than Washington’s, where a lobbyist can contribute directly to the campaign of a U.S. representative or senator. But he said lobbyists in Frankfort, like their Washington counterparts, make contributions “to let power players know that they’re looking out for them, they’re interested in them and that they want to do business with them.”