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Governments get slaps on wrists for skipping reports on lobbying

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on March 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
March 2, 2011 1:11 pm

State regulators on Monday fined four government entities over unreported lobbying of the Legislature by their employees.

The Public Disclosure Commission fined Metro Parks Tacoma, the Puget Sound Partnership, Seattle Public Schools and the city of Auburn for failing to report staff time spent lobbying. The time added up to the equivalent of just more than $30,000 worth of pay over several years.

The fines won’t break the bank. The Seattle school district was ordered to pay $250 and the other offenders were fined just $200. And the fines will be cut in half — or eliminated altogether in the case of the partnership, a state agency housed on the Tacoma Tideflats — if they follow the rules from now on.

The commission is investigating Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle for similar allegations. And it sent warning letters to 20 other government entities in January and February.

The accusations come from 69 complaints filed last summer by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a right-leaning, Olympia-based group that now says the state should enact tougher penalties.

“There’s just not enough incentives for agencies to follow the law,” said Amber Gunn, director of economic policy for the Freedom Foundation, which has since dropped the word Evergreen from its name. “That’s why they’re not following it, because even when they don’t, nothing really happens.”

A PDC spokeswoman said the commission when deciding on fines looks at what went missing from the public eye and whether agencies are first-time violators.

An intern at the foundation reviewed lobbying records for public agencies and discovered $4.6 million in lobbyist spending that the group says went unreported by the agencies on lobbying reports known as L5s.

The commission is still looking into roughly half of the complaints. It rejected seven because it lacked authority to investigate.

The foundation was able to uncover the missing expenses because most of them were reported to the state by the people at the other end of the transaction — the contract lobbyists who are hired by agencies and must report their pay.

Some governments that hired contract lobbyists, including Metro Parks, the Seattle school district and Auburn, said they didn’t realize forms had to be filled out from both sides.

Unlike the other government entities, Auburn filed the L5 forms most years as required. The only gap was 2009, when it hired a contract lobbyist. City governmental relations manager Carolyn Robertson took responsibility for the oversight and said she would personally pay the $100 fine. “The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for my inadvertent not filling out the form,” she said.

Metro Parks said the agency is responsible for the error and will pay.

The Puget Sound Partnership said it prepared the reports detailing 2009 and 2010 lobbying by then-director David Dicks and Public Affairs Director Michael Grayum, but for some reason didn’t send them in.

The PDC penalized agencies only for failing to report staff lobbying, not their hiring of lobbyists, because that information could be found in the individual lobbyists’ reports.

But Gunn said most people looking for an agency’s spending would have no idea which lobbyists’ reports to dig through to find it.

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