When is a paid advocate a lobbyist? And, most importantly, when and how much information should paid advocates be required to disclose publicly about their lobbying?
For years, Los Angeles rules governing lobbying have been lax, and many would-be lobbyists have been able to avoid registering with the Ethics Commission and disclosing their efforts to influence policy. The City Council is now considering tightening those rules in a long-awaited update from the city. Municipal Lobbying Ordinanceand most of the changes are big improvements that will increase transparency.
But there are still areas of concern, including a last minute change proposed by council president Paul Krekorian that, for the first time, would explicitly exempt union employees from having to register as lobbyists. Currently, union employees are supposed to register as lobbyists if they spend 30 hours in three months advocating to city staff and elected officials on issues other than collective bargaining agreements with the city. Union employees representing construction workers, carpenters and hotel workers have registered as lobbyists this year.
Instead, under the proposal, union employees would fall into a new category of paid advocates called “nonprofit presenters” who would have fewer restrictions and disclosure requirements than a lobbyist or lobbying firm.
Under the proposal, any nonprofit charity or union with an employee that pays at least $5,000 a year to lobby city officials or departments would be required to submit quarterly reports to the Ethics Commission that disclose the employee’s name, what he defended and the official or department pressured. That’s similar to what lobbyists have to report.
But there are big differences when it comes to restrictions. Lobbyists are prohibited from giving gifts or making campaign contributions to a city candidate (although they are allowed to deliver contributions from clients, who must report). However, nonprofit contributors would be allowed to offer gifts and campaign contributions, and would not have to file reports detailing gifts to city staff, political contributions, or fundraising on behalf of candidates for the city.
That may not be a big problem for most nonprofits. Under Internal Revenue Service rules, 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organizations are prohibited from contributing to or supporting political candidates, although your employees can do it. But labor organizations are 501(c)(5) non-profit organizations. They are allowed to endorse candidates and make campaign contributions. Classifying unions as nonprofit taxpayers rather than lobbyists creates a major loophole in a city where unions are major players in elections.
Another difference: Registered lobbyists cannot serve as city commissioners to reduce potential conflicts of interest. But nonprofit contributors would be allowed to serve on such commissions.
Krekorian said he’s trying to differentiate between professional lobbyists who are hired to advocate for office and employees who advocate on behalf of their organization. His proposal for the nonprofit taxpayer category came after non-profit charities protested that an earlier proposal lumped them in with lobbyists and subjected them to onerous registration and reporting.
But his proposal would allow major political players to avoid having to register their employees as lobbyists and follow important regulations designed to curb or reveal their influence and spending. Powerful organizations, like the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, would not have to register as employers of lobbyists. Neither would major nonprofit organizations like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation or USC.
The Municipal Lobbying Ordinance was adopted in 1994 to ensure that city officials and the public knew who is paying whom to influence government decisions, but it has not been updated since. Previous Town Halls ignored the recommendations of the Ethics Commission to modernize the law. Therefore, it is important that this City Council, in response to the recent scandals, finally move towards reforms.
The proposed update would reverse an ill-considered 2006 ballot measure developed by the City Council without input from the Ethics Commission that created a hard-to-enforce definition of a lobbyist: someone who spends 30 hours lobbying in three months. Since no one follows lobbyists, counting their persuasion minutes, this allowed some to bypass registration.
The proposed standard requires registration if a person is entitled to receive at least $5,000 a year from lobbying, which is clearer and easier to enforce, and will attract more paid advocates. The updated law would also require lobbyists to provide verbal disclosures to neighborhood councils and to make clear in public documents what position they stand for.
These are all good changes, but not enough. Angelenos need to know who gets paid to influence city decision makers. By closing some loopholes, the council shouldn’t open new ones, especially for some of the city’s largest and most influential unions and nonprofits.