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For Lobbyists, Ethics Bill a Yawn

With a revamp of the laws that govern K Street’s interactions with Congress potentially just days away from passage, you might think lobbyists would be bracing for a transformation to their business.

Well, think again.

“Yawn,” said Wright Andrews, a partner with Butera & Andrews about a new mandate that would compel lobbyists to disclose their contributions to presidential libraries and inaugural committees.

Another lobbyist, who would speak only on background, confessed to paying the lobbying and ethics package very little attention.

“My wife was reading the paper last night and said, ‘I don’t see anything that really affects you,’” the lobbyist said. “Then she said, ‘Well, you’re not allowed to take people on your private jet anymore,’ and we laughed.”

Neither this lobbyist nor any of his clients, he said, has a corporate aircraft.

But corporate jets or not, K Street lobbyists might have more on the line than they realize at first glance.

“I think people don’t understand the implications of the new liability provisions under this law, both civilly and criminally,” said Ken Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who specializes in ethics and lobbying compliance. “I just don’t know how much attention people are paying.”

For one, this law would mark the first time that lobbyists would have to certify on their forms that they have not violated any of the gift rules.

“The lobby reports, I think, still contain a lot of errors, people are not properly reporting overhead of in-house personnel, or their trade association dues,” Gross added. Not only will they be subject to penalty under the new law, but the number of referrals made from the Senate to the Department of Justice will be made public. “That may bring additional pressure not only to refer cases, but for the U.S. attorney to be more responsive to the referrals,” he said.

Perhaps, but the biggest worries on the minds of most lobbyists have to do with new administrative burdens of filing quarterly lobbying reports instead of semiannual ones. And most lobbyists said they were just relieved that the bill, in its current form, didn’t go further. Lobbyists are cheering, for example, that Members will have to shoulder the burden of disclosing which registered lobbyists bundle contributions totaling $15,000 or more.

Sandra Kaplan Stuart, a lobbyist with Clark & Weinstock, said her office has been operating all year as if much of the reform bill already had passed. And, she said, many of the new disclosures about campaign donations aren’t new for her at all because she currently files them under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“Because it’s been a long time in coming, we’ve had the mental preparation for it,” she said.

H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, president of Van Scoyoc Associates, said the bill contains nothing dramatic, aside from creating more jobs for compliance officers inside firms like his. “But beyond that, no, I don’t think it’s going to have a tremendous impact,” he said.

Brian Pallasch, a lobbyist with the American Society of Civil Engineers and the current president of the American League of Lobbyists, said he thought he’d made a compelling case to Members exposing his concerns about the quarterly reports being due 20 days after the quarter ends (instead of 45 days). His case must not have been compelling enough, though, because Members left that in.

“It’s the equivalent of asking you to file your federal taxes on Jan. 20,” Pallasch said. “It will be difficult for many organizations to actually be able to have complete financial data to file with.”

But even after the bill passes, as it is expected to do this week, lobbyists like Pallasch won’t be entirely out of luck. As with any newly passed law, it will be up to the regulatory bodies to put together rules to carry it out. In this case, that task falls mainly to the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate.

“They listen to the community about what would work and what wouldn’t work,” Pallasch said. “Obviously the league will work diligently with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.”

Pam Gavin, an official with the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, said it will be up to her office to administer the new law on the Senate side.

“It is an increase in responsibility, and we will do it exceptionally well,” she said. “We’ll have to redraft the forms. Unlike the first 10 years of the [Lobbying Disclosure Act], it’s going to be nearly all electronic. So that’s a different kind of rhythm. It’s faster to get up on the Internet and faster to do because we’re not retyping.”

Joel Jankowsky, who heads the lobbying practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said the new law would do little to change how his firm operates.

Increased disclosure on campaign contributions, which already are public, doesn’t faze Jankowsky. “It’s not a big deal, just a little more disclosure,” he said.

“As long as you’re trying to restore the public’s confidence, you need to do things the public believes are in need of change,” said Jankowsky, who has spent more than 30 years lobbying in Washington, D.C. “We’ll wait for the next scandal and they’ll change ’em again.”

Andrews, who yawned over the one provision, called the bundling element “perfectly appropriate” and said quarterly filing of lobbying reports is long overdue. “If people are going to use the lobbying reports for public information, why wait until it’s ancient history?” he said.

Even though some lobbyists expressed jitters about having their bundled contributions made public, Larry O’Brien, a longtime lobbyist and top campaign donor, said that it very well could become a badge of honor on K Street.

“I think very few of us are sending out coded cards and stuff and invitations where you really keep track of who could legitimately take credit for a particular contribution,” said O’Brien, founder of the OB-C Group. “You might have people actually fighting to get that designation, saying ‘It belongs to me.’ I just say thank the Lord that whole system lies with somebody else.”

While the lobbyists may be downplaying any potential new burdens on them, Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the bill would give lobbyists too much responsibility — and not enough to Members themselves.

“There’s a lot more work for lobbyists, and they have a lot more filing to do,” she said. “I think some of the things that are happening are actually unfair to lobbyists. Lobbyists have to certify they haven’t given any gifts or travel that would violate House or Senate rules. Members should have to say they didn’t accept any. I don’t understand why this is on lobbyists. It’s like saying I can’t have a pretty girl in my office because I can’t not sexually harass her.”

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