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Mooneyham column: How to dine like a legislator

RALEIGH ó Restaurants occasionally offer coupons for free meals to dedicated patrons.
But at the North Carolina General Assembly, any citizen, on most evenings when legislators are in town, can grab a free meal with five simple words: “Isn’t this a public event?”
Please, this isn’t a joke. No false advertising here.
The recipe for you to partake of a nice shrimp cocktail or some other delicious finger food lies in those five little words.
First, you’ll need to show up outside the Legislative Building around 5:30 p.m. Act as if you’re on important business, walking around like you own the place. Or, tote around a protest sign. No need to hold it up or shout. The idea is to look as if you’ve just come from a rally behind the building.
Now, with your cover established, watch for some well-dressed folks, in groups of three and four, to begin streaming from the building toward one of the museums across the street. These folks would be the honorables, the legislators.
OK, ditch the sign, join in behind and follow. Awaiting is a lavish reception being thrown by the homebuilders, or the bankers, or some lobbying firm. Soon enough, you’ll be grabbing a little plate and loading up.
Oh, and now for the magic words. If anyone looks at you funny, or challenges your presence, just whack ’em with your big rhetorical stick. “Isn’t this a public event?”
Don’t be surprised if they shrink against the nearest wall, whispering and gesturing to some other important-looking people. Don’t worry though. They probably won’t bother you anymore. Continue your grub fest.
The power of those words comes from the state ethics law passed two years ago, meant to prevent lobbyists from wining and dining legislators.
The law has stopped the little intimate gatherings at swanky steakhouses. But lobbying groups continue to ply legislators with food and drink at the broadly-attended receptions. They’ve been able to do so because of an exception to the law that allows legislators to continue partaking as long as these receptions are a “public event.”
The exception may have been needed. Why should a legislator be excluded from an event that any other member of the public might attend, regardless of the who’s picking up the tab?
But there’s a bit more to the law when it comes to defining “public event.”
The definition includes not just events that are open to the entire public (that would be too logical), but those in which broad groups of legislators are invited exclusively and the host meets a few other conditions.
But why sweat the details? By the time the host group has read up on the law and figured out if they can legally kick you out, you’ll probably have a belly full anyway. So, come on down. Invite a few friends. Bring along a homeless group or two. The food is on the House or the Senate ?or at least those trying to influence it.
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Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.

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