One ritzy fundraiser shows how tough selling lobbying reform may be
Editor’s note: Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.
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.
“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.”
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.
One trip, two fundraisers
Maverick Finance organized Corman’s fundraiser this week at The Phoenician, a luxury resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, the Republican senator will raise money for one of his campaign war chests: the Build PA PAC, which rakes in millions of dollars every year for his and other GOP campaigns.
It is scheduled to piggyback off another golf fundraiser there with an even higher price tag: one benefitting the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, a national organization in which Corman, as well as Cutler, were recently given leadership roles.
The committee is an arm of the larger Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based political organization. In 2020, the RSLC spent tens of millions of dollars on state legislative campaigns, with the money coming from corporations and billionaire Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson and members of then-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family, along with small donations from across the country, according to campaign finance and IRS filings.
The national organization’s fundraiser will launch Wednesday with a reception — with Corman as a special guest — and continue the next day with golfing at yet another ritzy Scottsdale golf club, Troon North. The club’s two 18-hole courses stretch through natural ravines and foothills where “giant granite boulders lie strewn across the rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert,” according to its website.
The cost: $30,000, which includes a golf foursome and a three-night stay at The Phoenician.
Corman’s fundraising event starts May 6 with an evening reception and continues the next day with golf at The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale. The course is most famous, per its website, for its “par-3, 16th hole that transforms into ‘The Coliseum’ during the tournaments and provides fans with one of the most exciting settings in professional sports.”
This spring, Corman was tapped by the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee to be its energy chair. Its parent organization, the Republican State Leadership Committee, had a significant footprint in Pennsylvania’s legislative elections in 2020.
It spent $1.7 million to help state House Republicans keep their comfortable majority. And it spent another roughly $330,000 on a few competitive state Senate races, all of which was paid to Zaborney’s Red Maverick Media — the only Pennsylvania firm RSLC paid directly to produce and run ads in 2020, according to campaign finance filings.
The money to Red Maverick raised questions, Spotlight PA and The Caucus previously reported, because a large portion went toward ads in the Dauphin County-based state Senate matchup between Republican incumbent John DiSanto and Democratic challenger George Scott.
Red Maverick Media represented DiSanto’s campaign and worked for the RSLC. And though it is forbidden for a campaign to coordinate with an outside group like the RSLC, Zaborney said his company complied with federal rules allowing for one company to do both as long as there are internal “firewalls” preventing coordination. Zaborney worked for DiSanto’s campaign while another Red Maverick co-founder worked with RSLC, he said.
Under the RSLC’s larger organization, Corman and Cutler were both recently named to the RLCC executive committee, connecting them with GOP leaders from other states in a joint effort to keep power in state legislatures.
Cutler did not respond to a request for comment about whether he would also attend the Arizona event.