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Justice Department Isn't Enforcing Lobbyist Law Violations
Boston Globe
Oversight of lobbyists found lax
Michael Kranish and Susan Milligan
January 16, 2006

WASHINGTON -- A decade-old law designed to make it easier for the public to track the actions of congressional lobbyists is filled with loopholes and is rarely enforced, allowing thousands of lobbyists to escape regulation or avoid disclosing the required details of their activities, according to lobbying specialists and congressional records.

Even the most complete reports by lobbyists don't reveal with whom they met or what they did for members of Congress, and the reporting requirement is so vague that lobbyists merely have to provide a guess about the cost of their efforts, rounded to the nearest $20,000.

A Globe review of lobbying records found numerous apparent violations. They include cases involving a former US representative who is listed as lobbying before his one-year ban on lobbying by former members expired, a lobbyist for a wind-power project in Massachusetts who failed to specify the legislation he was targeting, and representatives of the Massachusetts Port Authority who failed to list their specific lobbying goals.

But little is done about the thousands of inaccurate reports. Congressional officials are prohibited under the law from questioning all but the most obvious problems.

The Justice Department has imposed only three fines over the past two years in cases involving inaccurate or unfiled lobbying reports.

"We don't have any audit or investigative authority," said Pam Gavin, superintendent of the Senate Office of Public Records. "We are prohibited from those functions."

Critics say the Senate and House members don't want their contacts with lobbyists to be publicized, so the lawmakers deliberately set up a system that doesn't provide much scrutiny. As a result, lobbyists know there is little chance of a penalty for failing to file reports or for filing reports inaccurately.

The problems with the law have come under new scrutiny as a result of the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to defraud his clients and buy influence with members of Congress.

Abramoff registered as a lobbyist and acknowledged receiving huge fees, which helped investigators track some of his actions. But the forms did not require that he list the members of Congress he lobbied -- which is now the prime focus of a federal investigation. Advocates for tougher lobbying laws said the Abramoff investigation demonstrates why lobbyists should be required to disclose their congressional contacts.

"Everyone knows there is no oversight and enforcement, and that creates a Wild West atmosphere where anything goes," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group that wants stricter lobbying laws.

Originally, the sponsors of the 1995 lobbying law wanted to set up an independent agency that would have tough enforcement powers.

The proposal had the support of 55 senators, including eight Republicans, according to the chief sponsor, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan. But the measure was killed in a GOP-led filibuster, a procedural maneuver in which 41 senators can kill a bill by tying up debate indefinitely. Instead, the lobbying reports are filed with congressional employees who don't have the authority to investigate and punish violators.

Infractions are subject to a maximum $50,000 fine, but the sanction has rarely been used. "In the absence of any specific enforcement procedures . . . this authority [to levy fines] has not proven to be of practical usefulness," Levin said.

The law has resulted in a flood of lobbyist registrations -- 32,000 are on file so far. But it does not provide a clear picture of what those lobbyists are doing.

Instead of requiring a lobbyist to list specific expenses, such as dinners and gifts, the law requires only a good-faith estimate of aggregate costs, rounded to the nearest $20,000.

"If you take a senator or congressman out to lunch, it just goes to the big aggregate number, which is rounded to the nearest $20,000. Even if you are entertaining fairly lavishly, it doesn't manifest itself in the records," said Kenneth Gross, a Washington lawyer who advises corporations and has authored the Ethics Handbook for Entertaining and Lobbying Public Officials.

The omission is significant because it is illegal for lobbyists to give gifts, including trips and meals worth more than $50, to members of Congress.

In addition, the law doesn't cover everyone who lobbies. Only those for whom lobbying constitutes 20 percent of their work for a client need register at all.

And those who register often ignore deadlines: A landmark 2005 study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity found that about one-fifth of lobbying forms are filed late, often by more than six months. The study also found that 49 of the top 50 lobbying firms failed to file required forms during the previous six years.

Further, many groups are exempt from registration altogether, including church groups, state and local governments, and some public relations officers, according to the American League of Lobbyists, which has called for such representatives to be regulated.

"Current loopholes that exempt various groups from filing lobbying disclosure forms should be closed. . . . It is inappropriate for different individuals or organizations to be held to different standards," the league said in a policy statement.

A check of the records by the Globe found many misstatements or apparent violations of the law, ranging from late filings to the disclosure that a former member of Congress was lobbying Congress the year after he left office.

Former Representative J.C. Watts, Republican of Oklahoma, is one of five people his firm, J.C. Watts Companies, listed as having lobbied the House and Senate on behalf of college football in 2003 -- an apparent violation of rules that bar departing members from lobbying their former colleagues for one year after leaving office.

Jon Vandenheuvel, the firm's CEO, who signed the forms, said the listing of Watts as a congressional lobbyist was in error.

"J.C. did not contact the House or Senate. The other members of our team who were not under the restriction did all of the actual interface" with members of Congress, Vandenheuvel said. He said he put Watts on the list because he gave advice but did not actually contact members of Congress.

Vandenheuvel said he had never received an inquiry about the matter from an official body, and that he would consider filing an amendment to clarify the situation.

Meanwhile, AARP -- one of the biggest-spending and most powerful lobbies in Washington -- spent nearly $28 million on lobbying in the first six months of last year alone, according to the group's 2005 mid-year report. But the public can learn little about how that money was directed. The group chose to list only such broad categories as "banking reform," "budget/appropriations," and "dispute resolution" rather than the actual bills and provisions of those bills, as required by law.

The Globe review found that such vague descriptions were common.

Numerous lobbyists for New England-related interests were among those with apparent gaps in their reports. The Capitol City Group, lobbying on behalf of Cape Wind Associates, received approximately $20,000 to lobby the House and Senate on "wind power" during the first six months of last year, but did not specify which bills or pending regulations.

The same was true of lobbyists for the WGBH Education Foundation, who were paid $20,000 in the first half of last year to lobby on "Labor, HHS and FD Appropriations," but didn't specify which provisions of the sweeping spending bills were targeted; lobbyists for the Essex County sheriff's office, who received $30,000 in the first six months of 2005 for "securing appropriations for economic development" -- a phrase that could involve scores if not hundreds of bills and amendments; or GPC International, which was paid $60,000 to lobby for the Massachusetts Port Authority and failed to list the topics.

Brian Walsh, spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the lobbying rules, said he could not speak specifically to cases such as Watts's filing. But he noted that the panel recently required House lobbyists to register electronically, a move he said would increase public examination of documents.

While congressional officials do not have authority to audit the reports, they do check for obvious omissions when the forms are submitted. If congressional officials find that a lobbyist has filed an incomplete report or failed to register entirely, the officials are supposed to notify the lobbyist and provide a 60-day window to correct the matter. If a lobbyist refuses to correct the record after 60 days, congressional officials can refer the matter to the Justice Department.

Since the summer of 2003, congressional officials have referred about 200 cases to Justice Department officials. Of those referrals, only three have resulted in fines, according to Channing Phillips, spokesman for the US attorney of the District of Columbia.

"You have to really try hard to be penalized for violations of this law," said Gross, the lobbying ethics expert.

With the Abramoff scandal threatening to affect the reelection of members of Congress, lawmakers in both parties are rushing to propose sweeping lobbying reform. GOP representatives John Boehner of Ohio and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who are facing off to become majority leader, are focusing on lobbying reforms, cognizant of the pressure to improve the party's image on ethics.

Democrats are planning a series of news conferences Wednesday to announce proposed lobbying changes, including appearances by Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Representatives Martin Meehan of Lowell and Rahm Emanuel of Illinois have offered a plan to require much greater disclosure of lobbying activities, including the names of which members of Congress were lobbied, and to boost fines for violators.

"There's nothing wrong with lobbying itself, but there's no question that there's a lack of transparency and a lack of disclosure," Meehan said. "There's a cloud hanging over the Congress and it has to be removed."

Globe correspondent Kevin Baron contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

Commentary:
When laws aren't enforced the will of the congress and the laws they write cease to have value. In other words, the Bush Justice Department is allowing lobbyist to break the law because they give a lot of money to the republican party. Congress can pass new laws (like they passed new anti torture laws after previous anti torture laws were ignored by Bush) and it will have no effect. If Congress has hearings, we can pretty well ignore them (as long as the GOP controls the government). We can also ignore any new laws they pass because no one will enforce them.