Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, was among the legislative leaders from at least six states who took part in a controversial trip to London last summer with lobbyists, according to the Republican organization that says it paid for attendees’ travel expenses.
The trip in question became an issue two weeks ago after the resignation of Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, which occurred just after reports that he was under investigation by the FBI over his international travel and lavish lifestyle.
Last week, The Associated Press reported that Rosenberger and legislative leaders from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Dakota visited London last August on a trip that was paid for by the GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development, which helps to elect Republicans. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, several corporate sponsors paid GOPAC $25,000 each to send their lobbyist on the trip with legislators, including the title lending business LoanMax, the tobacco giant Altria, Comcast and Walmart.
In a screenshot of a Facebook photo from the Enquirer story of legislators and lobbyists on the London trip, Insider Louisville noticed that a man resembling Thayer was in the photo, and a review of the senator’s Twitter account showed that he was in London at the same time.
GOPAC executive director Jessica Curtis confirmed to Insider on Tuesday that Thayer was in attendance on their London trip.
“The GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development sought to educate participants on U.S./U.K. trade opportunities, foster the exchange of ideas with Members of Parliament and facilitate the study of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill,” stated Curtis in an email.
Asked what corporations paid to send lobbyists on the London trip with legislators, Curtis replied that “the names of the contributors to the GOPAC Education Fund are not publicly reported which is in accordance with the IRS regulations for 501 (c) (4) organizations.”
Thayer later confirmed his attendance to Insider, stating in an email through a Senate GOP spokesman: “As a member of the GOPAC advisory board, I was invited and attended the trip. My expenses were paid for by the GOPAC education fund. No taxpayer dollars were used, and I was not lobbied by anyone on the trip.”
Asked if he had been contacted by the FBI or any law enforcement about the trip, Thayer answered that he had not.
Despite his resignation, Rosenberger said that he had complied with Ohio’s ethics laws, though some have questioned if the LoanMax lobbyists’ attendance on the same London trip had a factor in the stalling of legislation in the state House that would regulate title and payday lenders.
The other four legislative leaders from other states have also asserted in media reports that lobbyists did not pay for any of their expenses on the London trip and did not lobby them on legislation while in London. They also stated that they have not been contacted by the FBI about the trip.
The spokesman for the Michigan House speaker who attended the trip told the AP that the legislative leaders advisory board for GOPAC “organized the event as an educational opportunity ahead of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union,” where legislators and lobbyists “met with members of Parliament to talk about best practices and with trade officials to discuss the impacts of Brexit and opportunities for international trade.”
The Enquirer reported that Rosenberger and the lawmakers not only stayed for free in a five-star hotel, but “toured the Houses of Parliament; had dinner with two Parliament members and lunch with Churchill’s granddaughter; rode the London Eye, an enclosed, supersized Ferris wheel with views of the city; and took a bus tour of London, complete with Champagne.”
According to records from the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, Altria and Comcast employed agents to lobby the General Assembly in 2017, with Altria’s $312,196 in lobbying expenses topping all other organization except the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Both companies employed six lobbyists in this year’s legislative session that just ended, with Altria’s $331,989 spent in the first three month of this year already topping its total from last year. The tobacco giant was lobbying heavily against a proposal to raise the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, though the final revenue bill passed into law increased it by 50 cents. The House originally increased the tax by 50 cents, but it was stripped out of the revenue bill by Senate, before the compromise bill reinserted the tax.
Thayer received criticism late in this year’s legislative session due to slipping an amendment into a bill that would allow legislators and state officials to bypass the Kentucky Open Records Act by conducting official business on privately owned electronic devices. That provision ultimately did not become law after criticism from a coalition of both conservative and liberal groups.
John Schaff, the executive director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, told Insider that Thayer would be allowed to make such an out-of-state trip as long as it was not paid for by lobbyists and he did not receive gifts from lobbyists. However, he added that Thayer would have to seek and receive approval from Senate President Robert Stivers to go on an out-of-state trip that was paid for by someone else as part of his official duties as a senator.
The Legislative Research Commission did not immediately reply to an open records request submitted by Insider for such a request by Thayer.