“Trust but Verify.” Making Sure You Start Out Legal

A lawmaker on whose election I worked copped[1] a plea to “knowingly accepting gifts from a lobbyist with a value of more than $100.” He claimed friendship, not votes, led the lobbyist to give him hotel rooms and a strip club visit. His, perhaps sincere but pitifully incorrect, legal theory resulted in a $4,000 fine and likely ended his electoral career.

His story warns lobbyists and principals to:

1) Trust that lawmakers do not know ethics laws any better than they know the contents of the bills on which we ask them to vote. Political calculus aside, they vote our way largely because they trust us to protect them from looking stupid or worse.

Leading a lawmaker into legal trouble makes lawmakers distrust your representative and may subject a lobbyist and principal to legal and political sanction.

2) Be skeptical that any given lobbyist knows ethics laws. For example, 501(c)(3), IRC lobbyists occasionally tell me they educate, inform, exercise first amendment rights, but definitely do not lobby. Charity in-house policies against lobbying and lax enforcement by ethics offices against public interest and citizens groups foster ignorant and illegal behavior.[2]

Organizations that should legally know better may not.  A new in-house lobbyist for a natural gas supplier told his Lobby School class that he delivered a corporate campaign donation tied to his boss’ request for a specific favorable vote. The lawmaker, upon hearing the vote request, refused the check and, with hands raised, slowly backed away, walking as if being on camera.

3) Verify that you and your opponents comply with ethics laws, including registration and reporting.[3] Does your lobbyist’s registration give your employee a “ride-along” exemption from having to register?[4] Probably not. Complaining to a committee chair that your opponents are unregistered can discredit them as much as them pointing out the same about you.

Ethics laws govern lobbyists and principals, directly and vicariously.[5] Lobbyists, in-house and contract, are bound legally and professionally to know and follow ethics statutes, administrative rules, each chamber’s peculiar rules, and sometimes committee rules regulating their and their principals’ conduct. Principals must verify and not presume that they, their employees, and contractors comply with applicable regulations. Even without legal enforcement bad publicity can undermine a lobbying campaign. “Trust but verify” that you and your contractors are legal, including lobbyist-principal registration.


[1] “Cop” means “change of plea (COP)” from not guilty to guilty. The lawmaker above “copped out” by pleading to one of five charges. Four were dropped in the plea deal.

[2] I have seen egregious citizen violations of ethics laws, unprofessional conduct, and disrespect, especially during committee testimony. Elizabeth Bartz may, but I don’t, know of a charity or citizen group prosecuted for “good faith” ignorance of ethics laws.

[3] Disclosure: I have been fined for non-compliance with lobbyist reporting requirements.

[4] For example, California exempts employer experts accompanying contract lobbyists from lobbyist registration. Caplin & Drysdale, “California Limits ‘Ride-Along’ Lobbying Exception to Employees Who are Subject Matter Experts,” (March 24, 2016)  Non-technical employer representatives are not exempt. Check your state’s law to ensure your employees do not have to register as lobbyists.

[5] Chapter 13 in Winning with Lobbyists, Professional edition discusses ethics compliance, including a client’s vicarious liability for contractor conduct. I tell Lobby School students that, generally, they are better off registering than not.


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