WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ... THE DAUFUSKIE FIVE: As junkets go, this one had exotic possibilities
Scandal involving lobbyists and club dancers brought calls for ethics reform
By James Salzer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/23/07
They came together about this time 12 years ago at a South Carolina resort for a little sun, a little golf, a couple of drinks and some laughs.
A few Republican lawmakers, a Democrat, and some Capitol lobbyists.
Oh, and then there were the four dancers from the Cheetah nude dancing club.
And just like that, Daufuskie Island became synonymous with all that some Georgians felt was wrong with how things work at the statehouse. Here was a clear case, ethics watchdogs said, of lobbyists trying to buy influence with a resort trip, complete with exotic dancers.
For a few months, there were headlines that said things like, " 'I was not with any nudie club dancers' " and "Lobbyists come clean on dancer expenses."
Daufuskie Island had the potential to force a change in the often-cozy relationship between legislators and lobbyists who roam the halls of the Capitol, doing the bidding of some of the state's most powerful economic interests.
But in the end, it wound up being a short-term political scandal that did little to change the statehouse culture. "We continue to have a system that allows lobbyists to pay for all sorts of things," said Matt Towery
, one of the Republican lawmakers on the trip. "The impact was negligible in terms of ethics reform. And we need ethics reform."
Towery added, "There should have been a law relating to lobbyists letting you know what you're walking into."
Without the dancers, the July 1995 golfing outing would have been typical of the ways lobbyists had legally cultivated friendships with legislators for years. Such trips had to be disclosed under state ethics laws, and meals and golf have long been two of the most popular ways lobbyists entertain legislators.
Five lawmakers —- later called the Daufuskie Five —- went on the trip: Towery, Senate Minority Leader Skin Edge (R-Newnan), and Reps. Alan Powell (D-Hartwell), Robin Williams (R-Augusta) and Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta).
The legislators and lobbyists said nothing untoward happened: Some say they never saw the dancers.
"A lot of events that take place have hostesses who come by just to carry on conversation," lobbyist Rusty Kidd, who invited the dancers along, said at the time. "It was an innocent thought and nothing but innocence took place. But the perception is not good."
Some Republicans called the whole thing a setup to get rid of rising GOP lawmakers. Edge, at the time, was considered a likely candidate for governor in 1998. Towery, an unsuccessful lieutenant governor candidate in 1990, said he was told that leading Democrats would be at the resort, but none showed up.
Of the five lawmakers, only two remain in office. Burkhalter has risen to second in charge of the House now that Republicans run the chamber. Powell remains in the House in the now-minority Democratic Party.
Towery already had announced plans not to run for re-election in 1996 before taking the Daufuskie Island trip. He went into business and now heads InsiderAdvantage, an online media and polling firm.
Edge, too, decided not to run for re-election to the Senate, and he became one of the most sought-after lobbyists at the Capitol. Last session his company's client list included about 60 businesses, governmental entities and associations. They ranged from AGL Resources, American Express, Comcast, the Georgia Hospital Association, UPS and Georgia Pest Control to the city of Atlanta and DeKalb County.
By contrast, Kidd listed about one-tenth the number of clients that Edge had last session.
The fifth member of the Daufuskie Five, Williams, a fast-talking wheeler-dealer of a politician, wound up in prison. He won re-election in 1996 and 1998, but lost the GOP primary in 2000.
He then became a lobbyist, although most of his work was done in other Southern states.
In 2005, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for what prosecutors called a scheme to siphon millions of dollars from a local mental health center. Two other lobbyists were convicted in the case.
After Daufuskie broke, lawmakers wound up in a special session on redistricting, and the momentum for ethics changes cooled. The Senate talked about banning lobbyist-paid trips, but the proposal didn't pass.
Then-House Speaker Tom Murphy, a Democrat, dismissed concerns about lobbyist-paid trips and gifts. "You folks in the news media are the only ones it bothers."
Daufuskie didn't stop the trips. In fact, when the story about Daufuskie hit the newspapers, reporters looking for Williams found him on a health care lobby junket on the coast.
Towery said, "Within a matter of months, it was business as usual."