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Thursday, February 23, 2006 | Last October, Kelly Thornton, writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, pulled the sheets back on an interesting phenomenon in City Hall.
A bunch of people lobbying city officials weren’t registering themselves as lobbyists, she reported.
Many of those she highlighted, later, you guessed it, registered as lobbyists. The biggest name among that group was Jerry Butkiewicz, the secretary treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. He is now a registered lobbyist for the biggest union of labor unions around. Look him up.
That was an interesting story.
We took the liberty of writing the sequel: Lobbyists sometimes serve as campaign fundraisers as well – except the only documentation we ever see about how much money they bring in for a candidate is in the checks they personally write.
That’s like showing a few small potatoes to the customs guy when, actually, your pants are stuffed full of much bigger potatoes. And the customs guy may think you have some strange bumps on your body but he isn’t allowed to really grab a hold of them – check them to see if they’re legitimate.
And it all may change.
Some background, as always: It had always been a mystery to me how a campaign for public office worked. A campaign has a lot of costs: advertising, consultants, podiums, frat boy neophytes… How do you set up a budget for all these if you don’t know how much money you’re going to raise?
The answer’s simple: You find out how much money you’re going to raise.
A candidate with some prowess – and some prowess – will form a finance committee of friends and interested parties who may want to help him or her win elected office. In the committee, depending on how connected the candidate is, there will be a few lobbyists.
You can imagine then, based on the candidate, what kind of lobbyist they will attract. And – no matter whether they’re Democrat or Republican, liberal, moderate, conservative – all competitive candidates will attract lobbyists.
The candidate has a person in charge of fundraising. These people earn a lot of money because they’re good at what they do.
They convene this finance committee. It may be around a real table or a figurative table but let’s go ahead and imagine it’s a plain wood-and-nails table. The fundraiser sits all the lobbyists and friends down and proceeds to squeeze from them estimates of how much money they can raise for the candidate in question. The lobbyists, for example, will think about who their clients are (developers, union members, environmentalists, strip-club owners, you know), how much their clients like the candidate – or should like the candidate – and they come up with a number, say, $40,000.
The fundraiser writes all the totals down, does some arithmetic and comes up with a total of how much money the campaign will have.
My lingering question, answered.
But you have friends that promise things all the time, right? What’s to say these lobbyists really come up with all the money they say will?
As I said, the campaign fundraisers make a lot of money for a reason: They know how to handle this problem.
They give out envelopes to the lobbyists. The envelopes have markings on them. You know, Lobbyist A gets a gold star, Lobbyist B gets envelopes with a pink mark. Whatever.
The lobbyists take away the envelopes.
In a few weeks, the fundraiser gets the envelopes back, looks for a mark and adds up how well Lobbyist A is doing. If the clock is ticking and Lobbyist A has only raised $35,000 – of the $40,000 he promised – he’s going to get a call from the fundraiser.
Shake down time. Again, these fundraisers know what they’re doing. If they don’t collect, the campaign might suffer and the candidate might lose. The ones who win get jobs as fundraisers the next time around.
Current city laws require lobbyists to register if they are getting paid a certain amount to advocate for their clients at City Hall. They’re required to disclose who their clients are.
But they’re not required to disclose the level and extent of the activity I described above.
“I would argue that it’s duplicative to have any type of reporting like that because it’s already reported publicly,” said John Dadian, a Republican lobbyist.
He’s right. City law already requires and – most of the time – compels donors to disclose their contribution to a campaign. And those donors may include lobbyists themselves. So Joe Lunchbox San Diegan can look and see that Lobbyist A gave $250 and all these companies that Lobbyist A works for also gave a certain amount. So, Joe L. thinks to himself, “Lobbyist A may have helped get a lot more than $250 to the candidate who won this office.”
Or they don’t make the connection.
In steps the Ethics Commission, which is currently considering new changes to the city’s lobbying ordinance – and consequently attracting a bevy of lobbyists to its monthly meetings.
“One of the proposals the commission will consider at its April meeting is whether lobbyists should disclose their campaign fundraising activities,” said Stacey Fulhorst, the executive director of the Ethics Commission.
That’s about all she would tell me about the commission’s plans other than that the commission was particularly interested in a law similar to what Los Angeles recently passed. That law requires lobbyists to disclose all fundraising activities conducted on behalf of city candidates, officeholders, and ballot measure committees.
And the Ethics Commission may go for something similar.
It’s easy to see why the commissioners would consider it. After all, public records laws require politicians to open their calendars to show residents who they have been meeting with. And that’s a good thing.
But it’s one thing to know a city councilman is meeting with Lobbyist A. It’s another thing to know that Lobbyist A is currently working for a list of clients already available online. But it’s still another thing – and an important thing – to know just how much weight Lobbyist A is bringing to the table.
If Lobbyist A came through with a big pile of coded envelopes, just as he promised he would, Lobbyist A may have a bit more of Councilman A’s big ugly ear.
It’d be nice to know how much of that ear he may have.
No, Dadian said, that’s a bureaucratic nightmare.
“The more specific the Ethics Commission tries to get, the more loopholes that will appear,” Dadian said. “A private person is allowed to hold a fundraiser and bundle donations for a campaign. Why should I, as a lobbyist, have to claim it and not another person?”
But Dadian pulled out a line he said was from his political idol, former President Ronald Reagan: “A government governs best when it governs least.”
“Have the lobbyists register no matter how much money they’re getting paid, ban political contributions from lobbyists and have elected officials open their calendars to the public,” Dadian said.
Notice he’s up for banning contributions from lobbyists – that’s a ban that works nice on the pocketbook.
I called Stacey Fulhorst from the Ethics Commission back to ask her about the meat of his claim.
“There’s certainly a mindset that government regulation is not important, but I think it’s fair to say that in the city of San Diego, recent events make it clear that it’s extremely important not only to regulate lobbyists but require disclosures of lobbying activities to restore the citizens trust in their government,” she said.
That’s really great.
But say the Ethics Commission did pass that law and forced the lobbyists to jump through yet another little hoop. Would it change things or would they just figure out another loophole?
After all, the fundraisers could just stop putting little marks on envelopes.
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