Ethics commission lobbying audit

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission, shown meeting last year, announced Thursday that about 15 percent of all state lobbyists had not been authorized to do so by the commission.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

Nearly 15 percent of Wisconsin lobbyists apparently tried to influence lawmakers and other state officials in 2017 without being authorized to do so, according to a new state report.

The lobbyists and lobbying groups that may have violated the authorization requirement were not named in the report. It was issued Thursday by the state Ethics Commission, which recently completed a wide-ranging audit on which it was based.

It’s not yet clear what consequences could be in store for lobbyists and lobbying groups tagged in the audit.

The report says commissioners are still developing a standard process to offer settlements to pay fines for this type of violation. After that’s done, commissioners “will deliberate regarding the specific action appropriate for each apparent violation discovered in this audit,” the report says.

Commission administrator Brian Bell said the lobbyists and lobbying groups are not named in the report because they should be able to “present their side of the story” to the commission first. If a lobbyist could show they tried in good faith to obtain authorization but, for some reason, couldn’t do so, that would be taken into account, he said.

“If in fact there was not a violation, we don’t want to falsely tarnish their reputation,” Bell said.

The sweeping audit looked at all lobbyists and lobbying groups in the state. Of the 539 lobbyists licensed in Wisconsin during the first six months of 2017, 78 — or 14 percent of all lobbyists — “apparently engaged in unauthorized lobbying,” according to the report.

Of the state’s 691 registered principals, or interest groups that employ the lobbyists, during that period, 74 — or 10 percent — apparently engaged in unauthorized lobbying.

The commission plans to send letters to all of the lobbyists and lobbying groups found to be in apparent violation, inviting them to respond and explain, according to the report.

Bell cast the audit as an escalation of its enforcement work in lobbying, which it oversees in addition to campaign finance and lobbying. Bell said it should ensure “the public and Legislature are on notice, who is lobbying and who they’re lobbying on behalf of.”

Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney representing the Association of Wisconsin Lobbyists, said it’s not clear if all of the instances flagged in the report are actual violations of the requirement. Wittenwyler also said that since the information in the audit was culled from recurring reports that lobbyists are required to submit to the commission, it shows there likely was no intent by lobbyists or lobbying groups to evade disclosure requirements.

“Stealth lobbying is not the intent here,” Wittenwyler told commissioners Thursday.

Professional lobbyists — those who, for pay from an interest group, seek to influence lawmakers and other public officials on matters of policy — must obtain licenses from the Ethics Commission. The groups and businesses for whom they lobby, known as lobbying principals, also must register with the commission and authorize each of the lobbyists working on their behalf.

The latter step, authorization, was the focus of the audit. People whose jobs include lobbying, as well as other duties, must be authorized to lobby after they’ve made five lobbying communications with legislators or administration officials. For those whose duties are limited to lobbying, the requirement kicks in before they make any lobbying communications, according to the report.

1
1
5
0
32

Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.