State Affairs presents the annual Georgia Golden Fork awards to Georgia lawmakers

Golden Fork Awards (Design: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Golden Fork Awards (Design: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Editor’s note: We compiled lobbyist spending data on 237 state legislators (181 in the House of Representatives and 56 in the Senate) rather than the standard 236, including one extra legislator due to one representative resigning and another taking his place during 2022. Both of those legislators were factored into the data.

State Affairs is kicking off its inaugural Golden Fork Awards, reporting on gifts to Georgia legislators from lobbyists and the organizations they represent. Our report furthers an annual tradition begun by our State Affairs Pro news bureau in Kansas of bestowing the Golden Fork and other awards to lawmakers who receive the most hospitality gifts each year. 

We combed through hundreds of reports by lobbyists to the state’s ethics commission, officially the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, from Jan. 1, 2022, to Dec. 31, 2022, and determined which legislators received the most freebies, including meals, lodging, travel accommodations and other gifts. Below you’ll find a list showing how much every lawmaker received, and also some reporting on the organizations that paid the most for access to Georgia lawmakers. 

It’s important to note that our findings only include spending on legislators that lobbyists are required by law to report. Since Georgia enacted a new ethics law in 2013, individual lobbyists are limited to spending $75 per lawmaker per event, but they can pool their funds with other lobbyists to spend more on individual lawmakers, legislative committees, political party caucuses or on events where all legislators are invited. 

And they often do just that. Lobbyists spent nearly $600,000 providing food and drink, swag bags, conference fees, and other gifts to Georgia lawmakers at group gatherings last year. They were not required to identify which legislators received those goodies, and for the most part, they did not.

This report focuses primarily on gifts made by lobbyists to individual lawmakers, which totaled $336,502 in 2022. That included about $240,000 for meals and drinks, $90,000 for lodging at hotels and resorts, $2,250 for travel, and $4,000 for other gifts.

Golden Fork & Best Fed Man

Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, wins the Golden Fork Award for receiving the most food, drink, lodging and other hospitality in 2022. He also wins our designation for Best Fed Man.

Williamson sits atop the list of 237 state legislators who received hospitality gifts reported during 2022 to the ethics commission. Lobbyists reported spending $9,083 on hospitality specifically for Williamson and his family, including meals, drinks, and hotel stays. The 237 legislators included an additional name due to one representative resigning and another taking his place in 2022. Both of those legislators are included in this report. 

Attendance at gatherings with private associations, some at swanky seaside locales, account for more than half of Williamson’s tally.

The Georgia Bankers Association treated Williamson to $2,024 in accommodations during its annual meeting at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Florida, in June, followed by the annual convention of the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association, which paid for $1,842 in food and hotel accommodations. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce spent $725 on Williamson during its spring government affairs conference at The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort in St. Simons, while the Medical Association of Georgia paid $500 to cover his stay at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa in South Carolina during its two-day “educational meeting and dinner.”

Williamson, who laughed upon learning of his Golden Fork award, said his first reaction was to make sure that people know that “Vickie, my wife of 40 years, was by my side constantly at these events, and you know, she’s getting a meal, too.” He said he has learned that he’s “more engaged and effective as a leader … when we work together as a team to serve the citizens of Walton County.”

Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, (right) wins the Golden Fork Award for receiving the most food, drink, lodging and other hospitality from lobbyists in 2022. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

A banking professional by trade, and the current Republican Caucus chair in the House, Williamson serves on the banking, insurance, rules, and ways and means committees, among others. He said his attendance at events sponsored by lobbyists representing “business interests” is necessary to “to stay well informed about a variety of issues impacting job creators. I might not necessarily agree with them.  In fact I’ve had some opportunities to have some really good disagreements with them. But that’s why I go. … I can afford to go anywhere I want to, any time I want to. It isn’t like my excuse to be able to get a meal. This is about my ability to get better informed.” 

Williamson said his involvement with groups like the Georgia Bankers Association has led to the development of important legislation relating to banking that serves his constituents’ needs, including the banking and finance cleanup bill he sponsored last session that was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in May.

“It was 102 pages and touches everything from money service businesses, down to credit unions, to banks and mortgage brokers,” Williamson said. As the co-founder of two banks in Georgia, he said, “I know more about community banking than most trained bankers. And typically when I’m hearing about banking legislation, I can better understand it than the majority of most members. And that’s why I’ve got a great relationship with all these bankers that I’ve met through the years … They’re the people that lend money to Georgians all over the state.” 

Williamson noted that aspects of the banking industry such as fintech, which involves computer programs and other technology used to support banking and financial services, “are constantly evolving. And you have to constantly stay on top of it.”

Best Fed Woman

The female legislator who attracted the most lobbying largesse in 2022 was Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, who is the winner of our Best Fed Woman award. Butler received $4,687 from lobbyists representing associations including Realtors, manufacturers, utilities, transportation, health care, and food and beverage industries. About 58% of their gifts to her were spent on meals and drinks, and the rest on deluxe hotel accommodations. She ranks 16th among all lawmakers on our list.

Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, received $4,687 from lobbyists representing associations including Realtors, manufacturers, utilities, transportation, health care, and food and beverage industries. (Credit: Georgia Senate)

A member of the Senate since 1999, and the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Butler serves on the rules, regulated industries and utilities, and the state and local government operations committees, among others.

Butler attended the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association annual convention at The Cloister resort on Sea Island last June, enjoying $1,180 in free lodging. Presenters at that meeting included leaders of Bass Sox Mercer, a car dealer franchise law firm whose legislative agenda advocates for less car manufacturer involvement in the retail sales of vehicles, and a representative of Cox Automotive who heads their electric vehicle battery department.

In July, the Georgia Food Industry Association spent $950 on her hotel and food during its annual meeting at the Omni Orlando resort in Florida. Like Williamson, she mingled with members of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce at its spring meeting in St. Simons, receiving $725 in lodging.

On Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session, Butler and her staff enjoyed a dinner on the tab of a lobbyist from GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group, who spent $600 on that final day’s feast.

Butler did not respond to our interview request.

Best Fed Democrat

Why give an award for Best Fed Democrat? Because we anticipate that in Republican-dominated Georgia, it may take a while for Democratic legislators to attain Golden Fork status.

This year’s Best Fed Democrat is Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon. He racked up $7,006 in hospitality from lobbyists representing groups who care about sports betting, trial lawyers, convenience stores, health care and transportation industries, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber. He ranks fourth overall on our list.

Reelected to a second term as House minority leader last November, Beverly represented Democrats in the chamber led by the late-Republican House Speaker David Ralston for much of last year. The committees he serves on include appropriations, small business development, health, and ethics.

Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, racked up $7,006 in hospitality from lobbyists representing groups who care about sports betting, trial lawyers, convenience stores, health care and transportation industries, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

An optometrist when he’s not working at the Statehouse, Beverly enjoyed multiple meals with lobbyists representing the Georgia Optometry Association (GOA) in 2022, including $423 in lodging and food at its fall education conference in Athens. He also met with GOA representatives a few times for lunch, including meals at Atlanta eateries Home grown and Gio’s Chicken, for meals that cost $13 and $23, respectively. 

At one lunch meeting, a GOA lobbyist reported they discussed HB 629, the bill that Beverly sponsored this year to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care providers. (The bill did not move in the House).

Last spring, Beverly joined many lawmakers who attended the Georgia Chamber’s event in St. Simons, where accommodations he received had a reported value of $725. He also spent a few days at the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association convention on Sea Island, enjoying $1,180 worth of free food and lodging.

Beverly did not respond to our interview request.

The Golden Fork List

Find out how much lobbyists reported spending on every Georgia lawmaker who served in 2022 on our list here.

Which legislators are in the top 10?  

  1.  Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe — $9,083
  2.  Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega — $8,111
  3.  Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper  — $7,115
  4.  Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon — $7,006
  5.  Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon — $6,737
  6.  Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell — $6,481
  7.  Sen Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge — $6,248
  8.  Rep. Al Williams, D-Liberty — $6,068
  9.  Rep. Noel Williams, R-Cordele — $5,900
  10.  Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton — $5,600

The Lobbyists

All told, registered lobbyists in Georgia reported spending $920,000 on hospitality and other gifts to lawmakers, either individually or in groups, on behalf of the organizations they represented in 2022.  They spent $336,502 on individual lawmakers and another $583,644 on groups of lawmakers.

Lobbyists in Georgia, as elsewhere, pay for these in-kind gifts to lawmakers in hopes of building relationships and gaining access to them in order to further the legislative interests of the businesses, nonprofits, advocacy organizations and other people they represent.  Since the late-1800s, their main job has been to educate and inform state and local leaders about the issues and concerns of the special interest groups who hired them. 

The activities of lobbyists in Georgia are governed by state ethics laws that require them to publicly report any expenditure, defined as “anything of value made for the purpose of influencing the actions of any public officer or public employee,” including food or beverage consumed at a single meal or event, and gifts such as T-shirts, mugs and other branded items. Such expenditures are capped at $75 per lobbyist per public official, but lobbyists can circumvent that rule by joining forces and collectively contributing towards hospitality expenses for one or more public officials.

Lobbyists are not allowed to provide public officers with free tickets to any sporting, musical or other entertainment events. But lobbyists are allowed to secure tickets to events and then let lawmakers purchase those tickets from them at face value.

Lobbyists are allowed to pay or reimburse public officials for “reasonable expenses” for transportation, travel, lodging, registration, food, beverages and other activities related to attending a meeting or conference that directly relate to their official duties.

Since two ethics reform laws passed in 2010 and 2013 that were championed by late House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, people who spend more than $250 a year on lobbying activities have been required to register as lobbyists with the state. They must also wear a badge when they enter the state Capitol or another state facility with the intent to discuss the “promotion or opposition of the passage of any legislation” with a lawmaker.  Every lobbyist must report their expenditures on lawmakers every two weeks when the Legislature is in session, and monthly during the rest of the year. 

Here are the top 10 associations or lobbying firms whose interests lobbyists represented and the amounts they reported spending on individual lawmakers last year:

  1. Georgia Chamber of Commerce  – $ 28,233 
  2. Georgia Automobile Dealers Association – $ 24,893
  3. Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association – $ 15,976
  4. Metro Atlanta Chamber – $11,882
  5. Georgia Trial Lawyers Association – $ 9,923
  6. Georgia Bankers Association – $ 9,591
  7. Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals – $9,096 
  8. Medical Association of Georgia – $8,302 
  9. Georgia Food Industry Association – $7,580 
  10. Cornerstone Government Affairs – $7,370

And these are the top 10 associations, lobbying firms or companies on whose behalf lobbyists lobbied and the amounts that lobbyists reported spending on all lawmakers, both individually and as part of a group of legislators:

  1. Savannah Chamber of Commerce – $ 77,307 
  2. Georgia Automobile Dealers Association – $40,587 
  3. Georgia Chamber of Commerce – $ 30,942 
  4. Georgia Beverage Association – $ 27,431 
  5. Taylor English Decisions LLC – 27,019
  6. Metro Atlanta Chamber – $ 24,980 
  7. Georgia Bankers Association –$ 22,883 
  8. GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group – $22,666
  9. Georgia Transportation Alliance – $ 22,501 
  10. Cornerstone Government Affairs – $19,513
Golden Fork FAQ
  • Did Republicans receive more hospitality and gifts than Democrats? 
  • Yes. Total spending by party tracks along with Republican dominance in the General Assembly.  Republicans received gifts valued by lobbyists at $257,925 in 2022, and Democrats received gifts worth a total of $78,620. A Republican on average received $1,731 worth of gifts in 2022, including contributions to family members. A Democrat on average received $794. 
  • How did the House compare to the Senate?
  • The House had 181 members in 2022 (one extra due to Rep. Mitchell Kaye taking the place of Rep. Matt Dollar, who resigned), and the Senate had 56. Representatives collectively received $232,759 in hospitality gifts, while senators got a total of $103,743.  But senators were treated to more gifts per capita. They received gifts worth $1,789 on average, while representatives received gifts worth $1,225.
  • How did gifts to men and women in the General Assembly compare?
  • Men received more gifts, collectively and individually. There were twice as many men (159) as women (78) in the Legislature in 2022. Collectively, men received $285,065 in hospitality gifts, and women received $51,437. The average value of 2022 gifts to a male legislator was $1,793, about three times the average value of annual gifts to a female lawmaker, which was $660.
  • Did all lawmakers receive free hospitality or other gifts?
  • It does not appear so. Eighteen lawmakers were not included in any lobbyists’ reports, although some of them may have enjoyed free hospitality at events open to groups of lawmakers. The 18 lawmakers who did not receive individual attention from lobbyists in 2022, at least as reported to the state, are: 
  • Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville
  • Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead
  • Rep. David Clark, R-Buford
  • Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Savannah
  • Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro
  • Rep. Sharon Henderson, D-Covington
  • Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta
  • Sen. Jennifer Jordan, D-Atlanta
  • Rep. Angelika Kausche, D-Johns Creek
  • Rep. Mitchell Kaye, R-Marietta
  • Rep. Zulma Lopez, D–Atlanta
  • Sen. Sheila McNeill, R-Brunswick
  • Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, D-Snellville
  • Rep. Randy Nix, R-Lagrange
  • Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville
  • Rep. Renitta Shannon, D – Decatur
  • Rep. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg
  • Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta

Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount that some lobbyists spent on lawmakers (Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Automobile Dealers Association, Cornerstone Government Affairs, Taylor English Decisions). Select Management Resources, originally listed as spending $29,571, actually spent $14,821, and was removed from the list. GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group was added. The amount that lobbyists spent on groups of lawmakers was changed from $598,394 to $583,644, and the total amount spent on lawmakers also changed, from “nearly $935,000” to $920,000.