Thursday…City lobbyist disclosure not working

If reports filed by the professional lobbyists who spend time trying to influence policies of the city and county are to be believed, almost none of them are paid or spend anything in the course of making their appointed rounds and peddling their influence. The “official” version appears to be that the city is almost a lobbyist-free zone.

But that’s just not credible. So I’m driven to the conclusion that the city’s system for regulating lobbyists is badly broken.

That’s the summary of a long lunch hour spent yesterday reviewing two years of lobbyist registration and disclosure reports filed with the Honolulu Ethics Commission. There are a good number of lobbyist registration forms filed by the hundred or so lobbyists who are on record, along with annual spending reports filed for each client represented.

According to city ordinance, a lobbyist is “any person who engages oneself for pay or other consideration for the purpose of influencing, directly or indirectly, and whether by such person or through any agent or employee of other person in any manner whatsoever, the policy making process of the City and County of Honolulu.”

That’s an incredibly broad definition which seems to sweep up pretty much all forms of lobbying.

But although representation of clients at the city is the bread and butter for a number of professional lobbyists, only a literal handful report fees they received or expenses they incurred in the process. Several old pros, including Dick Botti and Red Morris, were among those who appeared to file full reports.

Some companies register a long list of lobbyists, often not necessarily because they actually lobby but just to avoid questions in case any have to appear before city agencies. Castle & Cooke, Hawaiian Telcom, and their many subsidiaries register lots of lobbyists. Virtually all of them report zero fees or salary for lobbying, zero expenses, and zero policies influenced.

Landowners pressing rezonings, permits, and other development matters? Their lobbyists are registered but, again, most report no fees earned nor money spent while lobbying. No meals, no cell phones, no parking fees, no copying costs, no mileage, etc., etc.

Rail? Only one company had lobbyists registered on the transit issue during this two-year period. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Maybe all the action was earlier. But with transit oriented development and other issues still on the table, I expected more reported activity.

Two factors make the limited number of reported fees and expenditures highly unbelievable. First, the City Council works year round, not just during an abbreviated legislative session like the folks across the street at the capitol. More time, more issues, and you expect more lobbying. And the city’s lobbyist ordinance actually has, at least on paper, a much long reach than the comparable state law because it covers executive branch lobbying as well as legislative matters at the council.

Both those factors lead you to expect to see lots of lobbyist activity being reported.

But, as comedian John Pinette likes to say, “nay, nay!”

The Honolulu Ethics Commission is tucked away on the second floor of a private building on the corner of Cooke Street and King Street, down the block from the rest of the city offices. You have to go past the sushi restaurant on the first floor to find the elevator. The commission subleases space in the back of a set of offices housing the Attorney General’s Family Law Division. I think the commission has three small offices and a conference room back in the back corner.

To make a long story short, lobbyists are required to file only once a year. They register at the beginning of the year, and the following year they are supposed to report what they are paid, what they spend, and what bills or other measures they lobbied on.

The commission posts the lists of registered lobbyists online, but not the registration forms or the expenditure reports.

In Hawaii, the public has a constitutional right to expect effective ethics laws, including the regulation of lobbyists. Article XIV of the State Constitution sets out the requirements for a code of ethics, and it’s been around since 1978. So the effectiveness of the city’s system is more than just a city issue.

I’ll be interested to see what some of the players have to say about all this. Is the problem a confusing or misleading set of forms, lack of clarity in the requirements, lack of attention by the commission, loopholes making the law ineffective, lack of enforcement, or some other factor?

When I called the commission on Monday about the lobbyist records, commission director Chuck Totto said requests to review the files are rare and that they would need a day or two in order to get the records in order. That tells you something about the situation.

In any case, more to come.

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