Video: Businesses, lawmakers push ethics limits

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updated 1/18/2006 7:32:41 PM ET 2006-01-19T00:32:41

For a rare glimpse at how Washington really works, look at a 21-page spreadsheet which lays bare how lobbyists for one company wined and dined Congress at Washington's priciest restaurants. The sheet shows hundreds of lunches and dinners, provided to 54 senators and representatives and dozens of staff over a 10-month period. All paid for by lobbyists for telecom giant BellSouth.

Vicki Taylor, an administrative assistant at BellSouth's Washington office for 16 years, provided the document to NBC News. She's been on leave since she leaked the document.

“I thought it was just obscene,” Taylor says, “this amount of money getting spent.”

Many of the members and staff appear to have violated ethics rules, which limit gifts and meals to $50 or a total of $100 a year.

“There are rules that are getting broken,” Taylor says. “And there's nobody that polices this kind of thing.”

BellSouth says this is raw data and not evidence of wrongdoing. They are by no means the only company lavishing entertainment on politicians. And by some standards, these meals are small potatoes. Some lobbyists provide trips, tickets to concerts and ball games, and rides on corporate jets.

Melanie Sloan heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“If it's on the lobbyists' tab, that's because the lobbyist has an expectation they're going to get something out of this,” she says.

Among the companies spending the most overall on lobbying: Altria, Northrup Grumman and General Electric, the parent company of NBC.

“Companies are not throwing billions of dollars away,” says Roberta Baskin, executive director of The Center for Public Integrity. “They're spending that money becuase they want the access, they want the influence. And it gives them power.”

And many lobbyists point out that the rules mostly apply to Congress and not to them, so it's up to politicians to say no.

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent

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