New regulation fights shadow lobbying

Transparency2The state’s political watchdog agency unanimously approved a new regulation on Thursday making it harder for lobbyist groups to conceal influence peddling activities, known informally as “shadow lobbying.”

Currently, anyone who spends $5,000 or more to influence legislative or administrative action is required quarterly to disclose payments to lobbying firms, payments to lobbyists, activity expenses and other payments to influence legislative or administrative action.

The regulation, which will go into effect July 1 — meaning it’ll start showing up in October just before the election — makes it so the fourth category “other payments to influence” will be itemized. As it stands now, that fourth category has become a catchall with no accountability.

This “other payments” classification could include hiring consultants — such as former politicians who aren’t registered lobbyists — or the cost of advertising, hiring a public affairs firm, media consulting firm, or even something simple like paying rent.

But no one really knows on a case-by-case basis, since up until now it’s just reported as a top line amount with no specificity.

And groups are more regularly relying on this ambiguous classification. For example, the 10 interest groups that regularly spend the most on lobbying have gone from 52 percent of their total amount reported as “other payments” in 2000 to 69 percent in 2014, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission report.

Total spending has increased as well, up 34 percent over that same period of time among the top 10.

“There are two main goals behind the regulation, to increase transparency and promote compliance,” said FPPC Chair Jodi Remke in a statement. “As for transparency, the public is entitled to know who is trying to influence public officials and how they are doing it. As for compliance, lobbying is largely a self-regulated industry and requiring more detailed reporting is the most effective tool to promote compliance and facilitate enforcement against improper activity.”

The threshold for itemization will be $2,500 per expense, broken out into multiple categories, including salary, lobbyist expenses, legislative-related services, consultants and government relations, public affairs, advertising, research, lobbying events and other. Disclosing the name and address of the payee will also be required.

Critics say because the $2,500 threshold is so low, the new law imposes cumbersome reporting requirements on filers, particularly now in the middle of an election cycle, and the privacy of employees whose names will be published will be violated with little value to the public.

“These are individuals within many organizations who are not registered lobbyists, and while they may engage in some direct lobbying communications, they do not qualify as lobbyists,” wrote Diane M. Fishburn and Richard R. Rios of the law firm Olson, Hagel and Fishburn, in a letter to the FPPC.

“We ask that the commission recognize that there is little if any value to the public in the disclosure of the individual names and addresses or the salaries paid to these individuals,” continued Fishburn and Rios, whose firm represents the California State Council of Service Employees, an SEIU affiliate.

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