Today’s Advertiser has a good story by Derrick DePledge on reported spending by organizations that employ lobbyists. The story focuses on the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which ranks high in reported spending. The news hook was that HSTA ranked #4 among the big spenders. What? Since when did being #4 catapult you into the headline?
HSTA is unusual mostly in that it actually reports its lobbying activities. Even a quick review of the spending reports is enough to suggest that even substantial lobbying campaigns by other organizations go unreported and spending remains undisclosed, either because organizations take advantage of loopholes to claim that their activities don’t constitute lobbying, or they delay reporting until future periods when public interest will be lower, despite the fact that expenses are supposed to be logged when they are incurred rather than when the bills are paid.
Take the Hawaii Superferry, which lobbied aggressively to stave off attempts to impose a last minute requirement for an environmental impact statement. It reported $6,788.54 spent during the period of March 1-April 30, 2007, all on fees paid to professional lobbyists. But during that same period, the company was operating through its affiliated “Friends of Hawaii Superferry” to drum up public pressure on legislators through a statewide letter writing campaign and other public relations activities.
The Friends organization, which operated out of the same offices as Hawaii Superferry, was upfront about its legislative focus: “We support Hawaii Superferry and urge our elected officials to support it as well,” the group says on its web site. It’s activities were highly visible, and obviously were not without cost, yet none of the associated costs appear in the company’s lobbyist disclosure reports.
It isn’t just whispering in legislators’ ears that constitutes lobbying. Here’s the definition from the statute:
“Lobbying” means communicating directly or through an agent, or soliciting others to communicate, with any official in the legislative or executive branch, for the purpose of attempting to influence legislative or administrative action or a ballot issue.
That “soliciting others to communicate” is exactly what a front group like the superferry “Friends” puts front and center.
Or take another high profile group during the recent session, a group calling itself “National Popular Vote” which was pushing a bill to have Hawaii adopt a proposal that would have effectively circumvented the role of the Electoral College in selecting the president. During the final week or ten days of the legislative session, the group spent heavily on print and broadcast advertising, including prime time television spots and full page newspaper ads.
But their report filed with the Ethics Commission covering this period cited just $2,094.24 in lobbying fees for the same period. Nothing reported for advertising, for preparation of advertising, or for any other expense.
What a bunch of kidders!
I addressed some of these issues, including the requirement to report lobbying expenses as accrued, in a Honolulu Weekly column just before the latest reports were due.
I’ve also stumbled across at least one case in which prominent lobbyists reported no income or expenditures on behalf of a developer client, but it turned out that their lobbying was to be compensated in the future based on a percentage of development contracts eventually won by the client. So it wasn’t that the lobbyists weren’t lobbying. They just weren’t paid…yet.
Hawaii law prohibits lobbying on a contingent fee basis, but at least in this case there was no attempt at enforcement.
All this shows that either the law requiring lobbyist disclosures or the Ethics Commission enforcement of that law is seriously flawed, as evidenced by even these two examples. More can be gleaned from Ethics Commission records.
The news isn’t that HSTA reported its spending. The real news is how many other special interests appear to ignore or evade the reporting requirements without consequence.