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On regulating city lobbyists

Still a work in progress, it would seem.

BagOfMoney

Four years after Mayor Annise Parker’s administration tightened Houston’s lobbying rules and pledged to enforce them, not a single person or firm has been cited despite records showing that many lobbyists have failed to abide by the regulations.

A Houston Chronicle review of city records and interviews show that dozens of lobbyists do not properly record the clients they represent, do not keep their registrations up to date or do not report spending any money to influence city leaders.

In addition to registering their employers, lobbyists must disclose the spending they do to lobby city officials. Of the 142 lobbyists with active files in the City Secretary’s office, only 24 reported spending money on lobbying, and only 10 reported making more than three expenditures. Many activity reports also were filed late.

Lobbyists must update their registrations annually, but dozens fail to do so, leading to lapses ranging from a few days to several months. Some fought issues before the City Council, met with city officials or took council members to luncheons or Astros games during those lapses.

Houston lobbyists say any examination of influence peddling at City Hall inherently will omit the worst offenders who never disclose their clients and have no paperwork on file, and will name only those who try to follow the rules by maintaining active files. Many add that the city’s paper filing process is unwieldy, complicating compliance, and say city enforcement falls short.

Indeed, some advocates at City Hall do not always register because they do not view their efforts as lobbying, some because part of their work is public relations and others because they are attorneys representing clients and believe they qualify for a loophole in the law.

Parker said disdain for city lobbying rules is “not an insignificant problem,” but said enforcement must be complaint-driven.

“Obviously, we’d like better compliance, and I would encourage anyone who believes that someone is lobbying illegally to come forward,” Parker said.

“The whole goal of having a lobbyist registration is to know who someone’s working for, and, if they’re good lobbyists, you ought to know who they’re working for, they ought to be in there talking to you and advocating. It’s more of an issue of background information for council members.”

Craig McDonald, director of the Austin-based nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, took a different view, arguing that lobbying rules are drafted not for elected officials, but for the citizens they serve.

“It’s a basic right to know, almost like the ability to know who’s paying for elections,” McDonald said. “Without knowing who’s lobbying and who’s paying for it, it’s hard to find the conflicts – and that’s usually a conflict between an interest group and the general public.”

Houston’s lobbying rules have a simple goal: to make those who seek to influence city actions disclose their clients and the money they spend on their behalf. Despite records and interviews showing problems in both areas, City Attorney Donna Edmundson said her office does not have the resources to do proactive enforcement. Edmundson acknowledged some lobbyists complain about competitors, but said she has never received a written complaint that would spur her to investigate.

“The criminal standard is ‘intentionally or knowingly violates.’ The bottom line is, it’s just a Class C misdemeanor,” Edmundson said, noting the $500 fine such a violation would carry. “If someone files a written complaint, that’s fine. I don’t know of anyone in the city that would sit here and look at the City Secretary’s list.”

That lack of urgency on lobbying rules is common, McDonald said, noting that even the Texas Ethics Commission does no proactive enforcement. However, he said even minor violations of state ethics rules bring citations and fines because the bar to levy penalties is lower.

I generally agree with PDiddie that this is unacceptable. It’s not clear to me how much fault goes to the wording of the ordinance, how much goes to the lobbyists, and how much goes to the city for being so lax about it all. Tighter ethical rules are something we should all believe in, but where we go from here to get to what that new ordinance promised is a question we – more appropriately, the Mayoral candidates – can discuss. Towards that end, as I see it, there are three reasonable responses for a candidate to make to this:

1. Though there is always room for improvement, the system is basically doing what it was designed to do. It was never intended to be proactive, as the City Attorney’s office doesn’t have the resources to pursue investigations on its own. Adding sufficient resources to be proactive would be expensive and would be unlikely to provide much value. Clean up the language as needed, remind all the stakeholders what the rules are, remind everyone else that they are empowered to report violations, and we’re good to go.

2. The system is not working as intended, and the “do nothing until someone files a report” approach is exactly backwards. The city should be aggressively enforcing the ethics ordinances that it made a big show of tightening four years ago, and if that means spending more money on resources for the City Attorney to pursue these cases, even if there’s not much evidence now that there’s all that much to enforce, then so be it.

3. If the city can’t enforce its ordinances, then those ordinances should be changed or removed. Figure out how much we actually want to spend on enforcing these lobbyist rules, figure out where the most bang for the buck is, then rewrite the ordinance to reflect that and enforce them like any other law.

Which response do I prefer? I’m going to weasel out and say that I’m not sure, but I’m open to persuasion. What I would really like – say it with me now – is to know what approach the Mayoral candidates prefer. This task will fall to one of them, after all, and there is a budget reality at play here. How would they handle it, and what specifically would they do differently? We need to know.

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One Comment

  1. PDiddie says:

    My general feeling is that lobbyists who lobbied city council because a competitor refused to follow the rules (Uber) look terribly — and I do mean terribly — hypocritical when they are found NOT to be following the rules.

    And ignorance of the law — i.e. “these rules are hard to follow and hard to find” — is no excuse.