Lobbyist Forms Not Mentioned At Council Meeting

A Peek Inside the Process

The state’s Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council met Tuesday making no mention of  my column published in July 21’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, pressing for specific bill numbers, budget item numbers and other details on the state’s lobbyist disclosure forms.  I had been told in advance the issue wouldn’t be added to the agenda.

In fact the council’s meeting lasted less than 30 minutes, had no business items, and the only vote was on previous meeting minutes.  Those minutes reveal that the June meeting’s big decision was to approve a staff suggestion to add student loan balances among debts disclosed by public officials.

I don’t want anybody to think I’m making up the complaint that the forms disclose nothing at all, despite a direction to be as specific as possible, so I pulled a few examples at random.  Who owns up to working on which of the 3,722 individual pieces of legislation at the 2018 session?   

As previously noted on July 9 most of the filings lack specifics and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council has sent signals this is acceptable with its published examples.

Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce: “Business Issues.”  Well, that narrows it down to 600 or so bills.

Virginia Chamber of Commerce: “Executive and Legislative Actions and Procurement Transactions.”  I looked at this a few times before I realized it simply repeated back the phrase from the question.    

Mecklenburg County: “Matters involving issues affecting local government.”

Fairfax County Water Authority: “Matters of interest to the Fairfax County Water Authority, including but not limited to, issues arising under the Virginia Water and Waste Authorities Act.”  But not limited to. 

Norfolk Southern Corporation: “All matters affecting Norfolk Southern Corporation.”

City of Norfolk: “Local government.”

Virginia League of Conservation Voters: “Matters related to land conservation, land use, energy issues, and transportation financing.”

Appalachian Power: “All legislative matters of concern to Appalachian Power and its customers, specifically, and to the electric power industry, generally.”

Verizon, Inc.: “All matters pertaining to the principal.”  Another arm of the company did list specific bills on its report. 

Virginia Association of Mutual Insurance Companies: “Matters relating to insurance companies regulated under Chapter 25 of Title 38.2”

Virginia Trial Lawyers Association: “Executive and Legislative Actions and Procurement Transactions which affect the civil and criminal justice system and administrative laws, including those governing Worker’s Compensation.” Another statement which would cover hundreds of bills.

Richmond Public Schools: “All matters pertaining to K-12 public education in Richmond.”

Virginia Association of Realtors: “Any and all matters affecting real estate.”

Virginia Banker’s Association: “All matters affecting financial institutions.”

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company: “Monitor and advocate on life, health, dental and vision insurance bills.”  Advocate!  A verb!

Altria Client Services: “Tobacco-Related Issues for Altria Client Services LLC and its Affiliates — Philip Morris USA Inc., John Middleton Co., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., and Nu Mark LLC.”  At least we have a full list of all the related companies which are not reporting what they worked on.

Some do get fairly specific without bill numbers:  Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association: “Matters relating to hospitals and health care. Specifically, during this reporting period proposed changes to certificate of public need laws, legislative and regulatory actions pertaining to hospitals and physicians, Medicaid expansion, and budget actions.”  This is the only one I saw that mentioned it “proposed changes” to something. 

Some of the major lobby firms with multiple clients do routinely list bill numbers, as did Dominion Energy, Verizon Communications and a few others I found.  Listing the bill and budget item numbers would not be a burden for anyone. There is still time for the Ethics Council to make that the expectation for 2019.

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10 responses to “Lobbyist Forms Not Mentioned At Council Meeting

  1. So if you were in charge of writing legislation to do this right – what would it look like?

    And.. I do note – that while VPAP does data and political news… as far as I know it does not advocate for better disclosure…. which I would very much want and respect but perhaps they feel it’s “safer” to not wade into that swamp.

  2. I don’t think it needs legislation – I think the phrase “specific as possible” is a great target. I think this council needs to get serious about what that means.

    Ideally the reports should list bill numbers and budget item numbers, although I guess some generic grouping might work – “Medicaid expansion” involved a number of legislative items. They should list any gubernatorial appointment that drew lobbying attention (and several do). Actually, looking at the statute there may be a loophole on judicial elections, which needs to be closed. And I think if a lobbyist actually proposes legislation that could logically be noted – many a bill I actually asked a legislator to sponsor, but the client wanted the bill.

  3. re: ” I think the phrase “specific as possible” is a great target.”

    Well no.. that’s THE problem! When you do not enumerate specifics and you say instead …things like ” as possible” it’s a joke and in my view exactly what is wrong with the “Virginia Way”. Loopholes you can drive an 18-wheeler through…. and they do…

    • So very specific requirements – bill numbers, budget item numbers, procurement decisions, appointments and judicial candidates, and note those bills or budget items requested by the principal/client. At a minimum.

  4. Keep on pounding away, Steve. You’re absolutely right. One of these days people will pay attention.

  5. Steve,
    Agree with you. I have pressed the local council for what the lobbyists for the city are doing. Generic. I’m like … wait a minute … I’ve actually sent things in and said get them to work on this. Stuff that affected us, and they have no clue.

    • You’d probably not be surprised to learn that many of the local lobbyists actually do very little, not knowing the process all that well. Or the locality hires one of these big firms with 35 other clients and gets very little time and attention for its money (those invoices and reports BTW should be subject to FOIA.) The coalitions, the Municipal League and the Association of Counties, do carry a big stick in Richmond and the local lobbyists often serve as their foot soldiers.

      • That sounds right to me. I’ve been on the hiring end of such arrangements, and often you want the lobbyist on retainer for a variety of things only loosely categorizable in advance. The specifics (such as bill numbers, oe even exact subject matters) only become available late in the course of employment — so neither the lobbyist nor the client can list them in advance. And who wants to go back and update disclosure forms? — a substantial bureaucratic hassle at most larger firms with no reason to bother today. Now, Steve, if there were a reason, like a big penalty for non compliance plus a recent court decision applying that penalty to a lobbyist who didn’t comply and making clear by example just what level of disclosure would comply, firms would put the procedures in place to keep these disclosures updated. And that would require a lengthy court decision with authority. For real reform I think a public interest lawsuit is the way to go.

  6. In terms of specifics. There must be some already because what VPAP provides seems to be specific for at least something… as it “appears” that it includes contributions of at least one type…i.e. certainly not things like Roylex watches and the like…

    so in that case it’s not something like: ” all contributions that you think should be “reasonably” reported… it sounds more like ” you WILL report” with no wiggle room for subjective interpretation.

    However – I’m a bit confused. I fully expect lobbyists to go “talk” to various legislators and certainly about proposed, prospective legislation but I’m not understanding why it’s important to specify what bills and the like. Perhaps I do not understand lobbying in general… so why is it important to report such specifics? I really don’t have a problem with lobbyists per se – talking to legislators… industry, public-interest,unions, etc… I’m fine with that – and I really don’t see how we could assure collection of the data because there are 12 ways from Sunday that a lobbyist could communicate including text and email to non-govt accounts and/or through 3rd party intermediaries…etc..

    For that matter – what is the actual downside of not reporting contributions and/or cash or asset transfers to personal accounts?

    It still seems to me that Virginia disclosure laws are a ruse … because we do have laws but they are pockmarked with so many loopholes and exceptions that the public thinks VPAP is providing an accurate picture and yet we know there are many, many ways to essentially evade reporting to VPAP and those who wish to evade – know all the back channel ways to do money…

    but again.. what exactly do Lobbyists actually do sans any money that actually should be specifically reported – and why? I just think any/all conversations are going to happen… and I’m not sure if we actually know what bills .. we really know much… convince me I’m wrong.

    • Perhaps in another post. I’m convinced at this point in the string its you and me and a couple of other people with too much time reading….:)

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