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Wal-Mart Case Offers Window on LDA Enforcement

The law of lobby land is rife with exemptions.

For starters, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 doesn’t regulate grass-roots advocacy, which in the past 10 years has become a massive and polished industry in and of itself.

Nor does it detail activities and spending in public relations or advocacy advertising campaigns that seek to influence Washington policy. Ditto for direct lobbying by a company or group, as long as that lobbying amounts to less than 20 percent of at least one employee’s workload.

“I think the threshold was set at a level such that a very significant amount of lobbying can go on without being reported,” said Brett Kappel, a lobbyist and campaign finance and ethics lawyer with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.

A simmering fight between Wal-Mart and some of the retailer’s critics offers a case in point.

Officials of two anti-Wal-Mart groups, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, have participated in press conferences at the Capitol to introduce anti-Wal-Mart legislation or have discussed in publications such as The Washington Post the work they did in helping craft the legislation with Members such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Yet these groups have not registered under the LDA, much to the chagrin of at least one outside consultant for Wal-Mart, lobbyist Jim Hirni of Cassidy and Associates, who brought the groups’ possible lobbying activity to the attention of Pam Gavin, superintendent of the Senate Office of Public Records.

Whether the anti-Wal-Mart groups need to register depends on the definition of “lobbying” and, more importantly, how much time its employees spend on the task.

Paul Blank, director of Wake Up Wal-Mart and special assistant to the organizing director of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said Wake Up Wal-Mart is not required to register because it is a UFCW campaign.

The UFCW, he noted, is registered under the LDA and files semiannual reports. Blank said he recently received a letter from Gavin on the matter.

For its part, Wal-Mart Watch said it was aware of the complaint against it and does not plan to register under the LDA because its work does not trigger it.

“We are in full compliance with the act and remain focused on our goals,” said Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Watch.

She added that complaints from a Wal-Mart lobbyist are “as laughable as Tony Soprano patrolling for jaywalkers.”

In a letter responding to Hirni’s complaint, Gavin wrote: “In situations in which we receive information from a third party indicating activity that may trigger a registration, our procedure is to advise the potential registrant that the office has received a … complaint … and to request a response to our inquiry.”

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