Annual Lobbyist Disclosures

Annual Lobbyist Disclosures

The concept behind annual lobbyist disclosures is a simple one: A once-yearly accounting of what legislative or executive actions lobbyist sought to influence, how money much they spent and whom they entertained along the way.

In practice, the disclosures can be less enlightening than the public might hope. Below are three key questions the disclosures are intended to answer – and why the answers can be elusive.

Question: What actions did lobbyists seek to influence?

On the forms, lobbyists are asked to identify the matters which they sought to influence. Instructions provided by the Virginia Ethics Council state: “Please use as much specificity as possible.”

Some lobbyists make an effort to provide a detailed accounting, including a list bill numbers associated with legislation they sought to assist or kill. But they are the exception, not the rule. In most years, fewer than one in five clients identify a single piece of legislation.

Since it was constituted in 2015, the Virginia Ethics Council has provided no guidance about what constitutes “specificity.” As a result, lobbyists often describe the topics they pursued with the vague phrase: “All matters pertaining the principal.”

Question: How much are lobbyists paid?

The Virginia Ethics Council gives lobbyists wide latitude in how they report compensation. As a result, there is no way to get an apples-to-apples comparison that ranks clients by how much they pay lobbyists. For example, there have been years when companies or trade association with more than a dozen lobbyists have reported paying less in compensation than a company with a single lobbyist.

Guidance from the Ethics Council says that lobbyists who work for the companies they represent can list their full annual salary or a just a portion of it. Lobbyists who are hired under contract are told to disclose the total amount paid “for lobbyist services".

How firms define “lobbying” makes all the difference in how they calculate compensation. Some firms calculate compensation through the lens of a literal statutory definition of “lobbying,” which is the act of writing to or talking with an official about a specific piece of legislation, regulation or procurement. In this view, a 12-hour day spent at the Capitol might involve only a few minutes of actual “lobbying.” As a result, a tiny pro-rated sliver of a lobbyist’s compensation will be listed on his or her disclosure form.

This is why VPAP puts a disclaimer on its pages that rank clients by the amount paid to lobbyist. Under the current system, there is no way to compare.

Question: Which public officials do lobbyists entertain?

Lobbyists are required to itemize meals and entertainment in which they spend more than $50. They are required to list the name(s) of the legislative or executive officials entertained if the cost per person is more than $50.

Most entertainment disclosures do not name names. For instance, during the 2020 General Assembly session, officials’ names were listed in only 11 of 106 dinners that lobbyists held around Richmond.

Some of the meals took place in pizza joints or fast-casual places where it would be difficult to spend $50 a person. Some legislators insist on paying for their own tab, either from their taxpayer-provided per-diem or from their campaign account.

But even meals in some of the city’s most expensive restaurants go without disclosing officials’ names. Virginia law allows a lobbyist to split the cost of a single meal between two or more clients. So, a $100 meal to a legislator split between four clients is reported as four $25 meals – none of which require the legislator’s name to be reported. During the 2020 session, nearly half of the 95 dinners with no names attached involved split tabs.

Aug. 26, 2020

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