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Thursday, March 8, 2007 | Jim Sutton lobbies for lobbyists.

Just who those lobbyists are is a mystery to viewers of the city clerk’s online lobbyist registry, even though Sutton voluntarily attaches their names to a form he must file with the city four times a year.

And it requires a trip to the second floor of City Hall to learn that Sutton’s lobbyist coalition, the San Diego Public Affairs Working Group, pays him up to $5,000 per quarter and that his office is located in San Francisco.

But the city’s Ethics Commission wants the public to know much more about Sutton and his lobbyist clients. The panel is asking the City Council to force lobbyists to disclose who is footing their bills, what city officials they meet with, and if they played any role in the election of the officials they are trying to influence.

The commission claims their proposal affords San Diegans a better view of what goes on behind the scenes for the weeks, months and years before elected officials cast their votes on municipal business, varying from park funding or the design of a mini-mall to the notorious “no-touch” ordinance at strip clubs that sparked public skepticism over lobbyists’ influence yeas ago.

“We’re not saying it’s evil or should be prohibited, there’s nothing inherently egregious abut lobbying,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst said. “But from the commission’s perspective, we want complete transparency about the activities to ensure the public that public officials are not being unduly influenced.”

The commission’s decision to strengthen its regulation of lobbyists comes at a time when the profession, a longtime cog in democratic lawmaking, is perceived to be a rather dubious enterprise. Polls have consistently shown that Americans believe, with detestation, that lobbyists influence elected officials in exchange for the fundraising prowess they can offer the lawmakers’ campaigns.

Locally, former San Diego City Councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet were found guilty in a 2005 corruption case involving a strip club owner and his lobbyist’s push to repeal a city law that barred strippers from giving patrons lap dances (Zucchet has since been acquitted on most charges and will stand retrial on others). Additionally, former Rep. Duke Cunningham of North County was convicted of the biggest bribery case in the history of Congress by steering government contracts to companies who slathered him with gifts.

While members of the City Council’s rules committee were quick to distance their experiences with lobbyists from the questionable behavior that thrust those two high-profile cases into the public eye, they unanimously endorsed the Ethics Commission’s proposals Wednesday. The full council will likely take up the measures by July.

“In general, I think this is really good framework,” Council President Scott Peters said.

Currently, lobbyists must register if they make more than $2,700 in a three-month span advocating officials on a city decision. Under the commission’s plan, contract lobbyists — the ones like Sutton who are hired out by a group or company — must register if they earn more than $1 for their advocacy.

Businesses and organizations that employ in-house lobbyists, such as the San Diego-Imperial Labor Council or Qualcomm, have to register and list their employees if their groups meet with officials 10 or more times in a 60-day period. Speaking at public meetings or conferring with a staff member who is below a departmental deputy director does not count against the 10 meetings.

Sutton said the provisions were unfair, arguing that volunteers who lobby should be handed the same set of requirements. He claimed that labor unions and nonprofits such as homeowners associations tend to have volunteer advocates, thereby letting them off the hook. “We will comply with the law, but we think it should apply equally to all lobbyists,” he said.

In addition to widening the law to reach lobbyists who are undetected under the current guidelines, the new regulations would drastically increase the amount of information lobbyists must share.

Under the proposal, lobbyists would have to disclose specifically which city officials they met with. Tentatively, the commission wants to require that the names of council staffers or deputy directors or higher in the mayor’s bureaucracy be disclosed to inform the public just who was lobbied.

“The commission feels strongly that there’s a big difference between meeting with council staff and meeting with an elected official,” Fulhorst said, claiming that a lobbyist would garner a better opportunity for influence by meeting, for example, with a member of the mayor’s inner circle than with a department’s deputy director.

Scott Maloni, a local lobbyist, thinks it’s inappropriate to identify the official by name, arguing that the requirement would have a chilling effect. City officials will be less likely to seek input from lobbyists if they know that their meeting could end up in the newspaper and embarrass them. “If that’s the case, and then there’s a story in the Voice or the Union-Tribune, do you think she will want to talk to Scott Maloni about this?” he said.

In addition, lobbyists would have to detail their involvement in the campaigns of elected officials. The commission wants the public to know not just what campaign contributions have been made by lobbyists, but also what their role was in raising money from others for the candidate. While members of the public are barred from giving more than $300 to a candidate’s campaign, supporters can pledge to spur several others to give money, resulting in a windfall of thousands of dollars to the candidate’s coffers.

“In other words, if the lobbyist takes credit for providing a candidate with contributions, then the lobbyist should disclose the amount of those contributions on a quarterly disclosure report,” Fulhorst stated in a Feb. 21 memo.

Sutton argues that this requirement unfairly harms the business interests that he and his clients represent. Lobbyists who represent groups, such as organized labor, that don’t fundraise for a candidate’s campaign committee but rather cobble their money together to spend independently in a candidate’s favor would not have to disclose that activity on their lobbying forms.

Lorena Gonzalez, the labor council’s political director, said Sutton’s claim was meaningless because the group’s independent expenditures are always documented when lobbyists’ fundraising is not. “Every penny that labor spends is disclosed, and it will continue to be. Whether it’s on one or two forms is irrelevant,” she said.

Despite the concerns of business lobbyists — as well as some who claimed the law didn’t go far enough — the council and other attendees at Wednesday’s meeting said they favored proposed changes.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect law — no law is — but on balance it is a way to let the sunshine in,” said Simon Mayeski, a member of California Common Cause, which advocates for open government. “It will allow me to know who lobbies who, and that’s important to me as a member of the public.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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