The discovery of a second labor union filing inaccurate lobbying reports underscores a more systematic problem acknowledged by special interest and good government groups alike – that the current lobbying disclosure system is troubled, confusing and lacks safeguards needed to ensure full compliance with the law.
A Center for Public Integrity inquiry shows that for the past five years, disclosure forms filed by the 300,000-member National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) have failed to detail the group’s specific lobbying activities, as required by law. In May, the Center revealed that the American Maritime Officers union had violated disclosure laws for nearly a decade without detection by the two congressional offices tasked with oversight.
The NALC, a labor union which claims to represent 300,058 active and retired letter carriers in all 50 states, was formed in 1889. The group — like all organizations that spend a substantial amount of resources lobbying the federal government — files quarterly reports to the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House of Representatives, as mandated by the Lobbying Disclosure Act. However, from the start of 2005 to the most recent filing for the first quarter of 2010, the letter carriers union has omitted the required list of “specific lobbying issues” on its forms. In the field to indicate exactly which bills and specific provisions lobbyists are working on, the group instead listed only the most general of categories — such as “Retirement issues,” “Postal issues,” or even “Government issues.”
These defective disclosures highlight a fundamental problem. Confronted with a massive number of filings and constrained by a small staff, the two congressional offices required to review, “verify and inquire to ensure the accuracy, completeness, and timeliness” of reports find themselves overwhelmed.
Though the letter carriers union had filed 15 disclosure statements (and one amendment) with these errors, no one from the offices of the House Clerk or Secretary of the Senate had ever alerted them to a problem.
When contacted by the Center for this and the May story about the maritime officers union, the Secretary of the Senate opened inquiries, contacted the unions, and gave each the opportunity to re-file the errant forms. Kyle Anderson, the designated press contact for the House Clerk’s office, did not respond to repeated inquiries by phone and e-mail.
When asked by the Center about the faulty filings, Drew Von Bergen, director of public relations for the letter carriers union, acknowledged the group’s error. “It turns out it was an oversight on our part and we are amending our filing.” he explained, “We were not aware of it.” The American Maritime Officers also amended its filings.
Open government advocates see these episodes as emblematic of a broken system. Lee Mason, who oversees lobbying reform issues for the nonprofit OMB Watch, claims that the lobbying disclosure system is “fraught with problems.” While he believes that both congressional offices try their best, he said they lack the manpower needed to carry out the level of scrutiny required for these forms.
“They obviously don’t have the resources to comb through these thousands of reports on a quarterly basis,” Mason added. “If they had adequate resources, chances would be better that they would have found these.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center (CLC), agrees that resources are a major issue and adds that “lobby disclosure enforcement is notoriously lax.” She told the Center, “I highly doubt that anyone in the Clerk’s or Secretary’s offices is looking through these disclosure statements and making any kind of assessment whatsoever about the substance. That enforcement is nonexistent.”
Beth Provenzano, spokeswoman for the Secretary of the Senate, told the Center that the Secretary’s Office of Public Records employs nine full-time staffers, four of whom focus on lobbying disclosure administration. Those four have a heavy workload, according to Provenzano: “The Secretary received over 130,000 LDA [Lobbying Disclosure Act] documents during fiscal year 2009.” She said that the office applies “review standards” to the forms but is working to automate the compliance review process. Still, Provenzano insists that office takes its role seriously and has referred thousands of Lobbying Disclosure Act cases — for a variety of potential infractions — to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for review. According to the Senate website, more than 4,000 cases have been referred to the U.S. Attorney in the past two years. McGehee countered that she is aware of no major prosecutions for these types of lobbying disclosure violations to date. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office responded to a Center inquiry by citing an April report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office; the report notes that “no civil actions or settlements with lobbyists have been pursued by the [U.S. Attorney’s] Office since 2005, although it is following up on hundreds of referrals each year.”
The House Clerk’s office did not respond to Center questions, but a review of public disbursement records indicates more than 200 staffers worked for the office in the first quarter of 2010, not including student pages. None were listed specifically as working on lobbying disclosure compliance.
Even the lobbyists who must file find the procedures troublesome and confusing. Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, says the system has improved, but agrees that the two congressional offices that review filings don’t catch everything. And, he notes, there is not much training for lobbyist filers on what is expected of them. His group, he said, is “willing to work with anyone who wants to make the process easier” and hopes the offices can work with lobbyists to “help those screwing up not screw up.”
The Campaign Legal Center’s McGehee said that the letter carriers union case seemed like an innocent mistake, observing that it “sounds more like inattention or sloppiness than nefarious motives.” There is, she notes, a distinction “between honest and willful mistakes.” But, with groups feeling no fear of repercussions for misfiling, it’s impossible to be sure.
After all, she added, “Nobody’s looking.”
Intern Gabriel Debenedetti contributed to this report.