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Inside A Lavish Retreat Where Lobbyists Donate For Access To State Attorneys General

Leslie Rutledge

State attorneys general, who are the top law enforcement officials in each state, have the final say on which cases to pursue or not. That power has not gone unnoticed by lobbyists. CBS News got an inside look at one lavish retreat at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, where businesses and trade groups paid for access. Some of the companies are under investigation by state attorneys general, but still give large donations so they can get one-on-one access to AGs to state their case.

It’s perfectly legal for a company under investigation by a state attorney general to give money to the political associations for attorneys general that fund AG campaigns. In return, it’s legal for those associations to give access to company lobbyists.

Rubbing shoulders with a state attorney general doesn’t come cheap. To get an invite to a four-day retreat, lobbyists had to fork over $125,000.

The dress code? “Resort casual.”

On a hidden camera, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr can be heard saying, “We can’t do what we do without your help.”

Selling access to events like this has helped the Republican Attorneys General Association, or RAGA, raise more than $20 million in the last year and a half – twice as much as their Democratic counterparts.

“Look, the other side has been very energized and there’s no two ways about it,” Carr could be heard saying.

CBS News reviewed 88 donations over $50,000 or more to RAGA and found 46 of those donors had matters under consideration by a state attorney general or had recently settled. Others needed help from the AG community. The NRA, for instance, made a $700,000 donation to RAGA four weeks after the Las Vegas shooting.

It was a six-fold increase from the previous year and came as even some Republicans were calling for new gun control measures. One month later, 24 of the 27 GOP attorneys general wrote a letter urging Congress to pass concealed carry legislation – a top priority for the NRA.

The NRA told CBS News it “did not discuss the letter with RAGA” and gave generously to RAGA simply because the “the NRA supports organizations that work to elect pro-Second Amendment candidates.”

“The major concern from my perspective is that this is completely behind closed doors,” Marquette University’s Paul Nolette said. He has studied the role of state attorneys general.

“If the public doesn’t know what the connection between the money coming in and the policies or investigations going out are, then it really raises some questions,” Nolette said.

The more money these lobbyists shell out, the more access they get. At swanky golf resorts like one in Pinehurst, North Carolina, $50,000 entitles them to so-called “issue briefings”: one-on-one with Republican AGs.

The most luxurious gathering we saw was on Kiawah Island. It’s an event so exclusive, it’s not even mentioned on RAGA’s website.

When we asked nine attorneys general we saw there – from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, North Dakota, South Carolina and Utah – if they attended, only three (Idaho, South Carolina and North Dakota) would confirm they went.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is the chair of RAGA, but when we asked her staff if she was there, they responded by email, “We have nothing additional.” Yet a video appears to show Rutledge on a golf course and at a resort event.

5NEWS reached out to Rutledge, who provided the following statement:

“Attorney General Rutledge attends various conferences to meet with other attorneys general about issues facing states such as the opioid epidemic, human trafficking, regulatory overreach and deceptive trade practices.”

See more of this story, including video, at CBSNews.com.