DOJ Renews Promise of Action on Lobbying Law Compliance

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

Department of Justice officials in charge of enforcing the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act told the Government Accountability Office recently that DOJ is pursuing at least four “chronic offenders” of the lobbying law and expects to take action soon.

The DOJ’s promise to ensure compliance with LDA filing requirements—which was included by the GAO in a new annual report on LDA compliance released March 31—was familiar. Last year’s GAO report also said the DOJ was on the verge of taking action to improve compliance with the lobbying law. However, the DOJ never announced any new settlements or other enforcement actions in the year following that report.

The LDA requires an organization employing paid lobbyists working to influence the federal government to register and file quarterly reports on activities. Information that must be disclosed includes who is paying for the lobbying, how much is being paid and what legislation or policy issues are involved. Only a handful of settlements with violators of the lobbying disclosure law have been announced since the LDA was enacted in the mid-1990s.

Last year, Justice Department officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which is in charge of enforcing the federal lobbying law, told the GAO that the office was working on two cases expected be closed soon and had three more expected to result in further action within six months. No court filings or other enforcement actions have been announced, however, since a $125,000 settlement with the lobbying firm the Carmen Group Inc. was revealed in August 2015.

Thousands of Referrals From Capitol Hill

The U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment on the status of current LDA enforcement actions, according to a spokesman contacted by Bloomberg BNA April 4.

The GAO report noted that House and Senate officials in charge of administering the LDA have referred thousands of cases of noncompliance to DOJ officials, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been able to resolve only about half of these cases through letters and other contacts seeking compliance.

The GAO said officials believe many of those who fail to file disclosure reports are no longer lobbying. However, more than 1,300 referrals to the DOJ regarding failure to file lobbying reports remained unresolved last year, the GAO found. Meanwhile, another more than 700 referrals for failing to file required reports on lobbyists’ political contributions also remained unresolved.

GAO Randomly Audits Filers

The annual GAO reports on LDA compliance rely mainly on random audits of a sample group of lobbying organizations to test compliance with the disclosure law. In the latest report, the GAO found that in 2016, most lobbyists audited were able to provide documentation for key elements of their disclosure reports.

The GAO report noted that current compliance procedures focus on tracking LDA reports required to be filed by those who file initial disclosure registrations under the lobbying law. There currently is no systematic mechanism to check whether those required to register as lobbyists actually do so.

The overall number of LDA disclosure filings has fallen sharply over the last decade, with the number of registered lobbyists down by about 25 percent to 11,143 in 2016, from a high of 14,822 in 2007, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The decline in LDA filings has been attributed by some to lax enforcement of the law, as well as increasing government restrictions on interactions with registered lobbyists, which were first imposed in 2008 by the Obama administration.

90 Percent Filed Lobbying Reports

For lobbying disclosure reports—known as LD-2 reports—filed during last half of 2015 and the first half of 2016, the GAO estimated that 90 percent of lobbying entities filed required reports on their lobbying activities for the quarter in which they first registered. Further, the GAO found that 83 percent of lobbying organizations could provide documentation for their LDA-reported income and expenses. That figure was down down from 92 percent in 2015, the GAO noted.

The latest findings, with the exception of fewer lobbyists who could produce documentation for income and expenses, were “generally consistent with prior reports the GAO issued for the 2010 through 2015 reporting periods,” the latest GAO report said.

As in previous reports, the GAO found some lobbyists were still unclear about the need to disclose certain previously held covered positions, such as paid congressional internships or certain executive agency positions. The GAO estimated that 15 percent of all LD-2 reports may not have properly disclosed one or more previously held covered positions.

The GAO report also found a 94 percent compliance rate for requirements to disclose lobbyists’ campaign contributions on what are known as LD-203 reports.

The GAO said it interviewed officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia to assess LDA compliance issues. The report said the office stated it has sufficient resources and authority to enforce compliance with the lobbying law and was continuing its efforts to bring lobbyists into compliance by prompting them to file reports or by applying civil penalties.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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