Olens: I took lobbyist trip to save state money

8:05 PM, Jan 31, 2012   |    comments
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Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, in an interview with WXIA-TV, January 2012

ATLANTA (WXIA) -- As Georgia Attorney General, Sam Olens says he is an adversary in what he calls "a war against the tobacco industry."  But in December, he accepted a plane ride from a tobacco lobbyist valued at more than $1,500.  They went to a convention in Palm Beach, FL.

The war of which Olens speaks stems from a multi-billion dollar settlement agreement made more than a decade ago between states and the big tobacco companies -- an agreement that tobacco companies are now challenging. Olens says he took the free plane ride from the tobacco lobbyist to effectively lobby them to back off.

11Alive News first reported the trip in December.  He agreed to answer questions this week.

Doug Richards: When you took that trip, what were you thinking?

Sam Olens: The state is involved in a binding arbitration (with tobacco companies). The stakes are over $120 million. It was my intent to spend time with members of the tobacco industry to see that they not seek the arbitration against our state.

Q: And you had to do it on a plane trip paid for by the tobacco lobbyist?

A: Well it was an opportunity, frankly, to have that time alone with them to discuss the fact that the state was doing everything possible to enforce the tobacco laws, to follow the master settlement, and it was a great opportunity, frankly, to share that time and to encourage them to not sue the state.

Q:  Could you have had that opportunity without accepting this rather expensive gift from him?

A: Well first of all, I was traveling to the conference. Secondly, yes I could have flown to DC to meet with all the folks. But it seemed timely. That was right when all the tobacco companies were deciding who they were going to sue.

$120 million is a lot at stake for our state. And I was trying to save our state money. This isn't anything but an opportunity to put the best foot forward for our state. We're in a war against the tobacco industry. And that's a lot of money on an annual basis that's at risk.

Q:  My understanding is, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the tobacco companies decided about eleven days prior to that plane trip, (which states) they were going to dispute the settlements with.

A: First of all, the decision was, which would be the first state (they'd choose to dispute). Secondly, I wasn't privy to that information. Our state and our department takes very seriously a loss of over $120 million. So I was doing my best to avoid us being in that binding arbitration.

Q: Did you know at that time that the issue had basically already been settled?

A: No. In fact what's interesting is that the first state the tobacco industry wanted was the first state the states wanted, that being Missouri. They have since chosen a second state and a third state. And to the extent that my ride with them has encouraged them such that Georgia is later down the list, then that was a good use of time.

Q: They had already decided it, right?

A: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. In fact the second and third states were decided in about the last two weeks.

Q: OK. From the standpoint of a guy who has run a statewide campaign and has his ear to the ground on ethical issues -- you spoke quite a bit during your campaign about ethical issues.

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Does this pass the stink test?

A: It's absolutely transparent. The main goal is that anything that is done is visible to the public, in contrast to the laws of many other states where they don't have any transparency. So from my perspective, once again, you may make light of a potential $120 million loss to the state. I take it very seriously.

Q: But that's the kind of thing that you could have done without accepting (what was) quite a gift from the tobacco industry, right?

A: Doug, if I flew to DC and met with a bunch of tobacco folks to try to do the same thing, you'd criticize me then.

Q: Why not just invite them into your office?

A: Right. I'm going to invite them into my office when we're in suit and they're going to immediately come in to see me. I took advantage of the opportunity to encourage them to not be in suit with the state of Georgia.

Q: OK. So the Attorneys General are basically in an adversarial relationship with the tobacco companies.

A: Absolutely. A $120 million loss in one year is adversarial.

Q: Well then, would it have made sense -- if you had to take a plane ride with the tobacco lobbyists -- to have paid for the plane ride yourself?

A: Certainly that's an option. We're all dealing the best we can with our budgets. I'm doing the best I can with our budget. We were both flying to this convention. We have 120 plus million dollars at risk. And I was trying to save the state money.

Q:  Does it make sense for public officials to take expensive gifts like this from people with whom they do business or have an adversarial relationship with them?

A: Doug, it was a plane ride trying to save the state $120 million. It's not an expensive gift. I didn't receive a dinner. I didn't receive a gift. I took advantage of us both going to the same city, trying to save the state $120 million.

Q: OK. Well, let me ask that question again. Putting this aside. You know there are many other states where something like this would have been illegal. Does it make sense for it to be (legal) in Georgia when it's illegal in other states?

A: Doug, I think it's appropriate to ask me about Georgia law and not the other states.

Q: But you're a leader in ethical issues.

A: Doug, I'm the attorney general for the state. My job is to defend the laws of this state. And to represent the state. Please ask your next question.

Q: Isn't it reasonable to ask you your opinion about ethical issues? You did talk a lot about it during the campaign.

A: Doug, for instance, you've got states where everything is hidden. Where everything is hidden, where there is not transparency. For instance, Florida. That clearly is a bad law. In our state everything is transparent. That's how you received the information about the flight.

Q: Right. Which is why I'm asking the questions.

A: And I much prefer the laws of our state, where everything is transparent. That's key.

Q: But doesn't that let elected officials off the hook a little bit, by saying "well, we don't have to have an opinion now about whether it's right or not."

A: Absolutely not. You know, the laws can always be strengthened. Laws can always be improved. My wife says I can always be improved.

Q: So do you have an opinion on whether there ought to be a restriction on gifts like this?

A: Once again, and I know this is a difficult question. I represent the state. Anytime I opine on what changes should or should not occur to state law, that's exhibit A in the next lawsuit.  So I unfortunately am in a position where I restrict comments in that regard, so it doesn't adversely affect the state.

Q: You said in the campaign that elected officials ought to be held to a higher standard.

A: And I still agree with that.

Q: Would eliminating this kind of transaction amount to holding elected officials to a higher standard?

A: The most important thing is transparency. At times when folks try to change the law and make it very strict, such as Florida, the opposite works. In Florida, you have no idea (which lobbyists are) spending what and on whom. That certainly isn't good policy.

Q: If you were offered an opportunity to have a lobbyist, with whom you have an adversarial relationship, to pay for a plane ride for you both to go to a conference or wherever, would you do it again?

A: Look Doug. I take seriously the loss of $120 million in our state. The opportunity to discuss the issue with them, the opportunity to maybe save the state 120 plus million dollars is vital. Right across the street (at the Capitol), they're not dealing with the budget. 120 plus million is a major hit to the state's budget.

Q: So would you do it again?

A: Doug, please ask your next question.

Q: You didn't answer the last one.

A: You've asked it at least ten times, sir.

Q: No, no! This is the first time I've asked you whether you would do it again.

A: Doug, I'm going to follow the law. I'm going to be transparent. And where I can save the state potentially 120-plus million, I'm going to try and save the state that money. 

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