American Maritime Officers: The same agenda year after year?

Union's lobbying disclosure forms under scrutiny

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An examination of lobbying records filed by the American Maritime Officers (AMO) union has revealed a stunning long-term pattern of Lobbying Disclosure Act violations by the union, and a lack of oversight by congressional offices tasked with ensuring the accuracy of such reports.

Late last month, following inquiries by the Center, the union moved to address some of the issues.

The problems came to light as a result of research conducted by the Center for its upcoming Who Bankrolls Congress? series. The union turned up as one of the top career contributors to House Minority Leader John Boehner, and a closer examination of its lobbying reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records uncovered a nearly decade-long gap in the union’s reporting of its legislative activities.

The AMO, the nation’s largest union of merchant marine officers, represents about 4,000 members nationwide and is headquartered in Dania Beach, Fla. The group was part of the AFL-CIO’s Marine Engineers Beneficial Association until 1994, then functioned as an independent unaffiliated union for almost a decade before signing an affiliation agreement with the AFL-CIO’s Seafarers International Union of North America. The AMO has had legal problems in recent years: In 2007, the union’s former president and its former secretary-treasurer were both convicted for racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud in a scandal involving illegal contributions to political candidates. Neither was a registered lobbyist for the organization.

The Senate Office of Public Records makes available lobbying reports on its website dating back to 1999. Listed on the AMO’s 1999 midyear disclosure form are more than a dozen legislative proposals on which the group lobbied during that time period. Included were the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1999, the Maritime Administration Authorization Act for fiscal years 2000 and 2001, a “Cruises to Nowhere Act” governing gambling cruise ships, and the Water Resources Development Act of 1999. Some of these measures were enacted, some were merged into other bills, and others died in Congress.

A year later, the union’s 2000 midyear and year-end filings included all the same bills, as well as two new additions: the United States Cruise Vessel Act and the Free Market Antitrust Reform Act of 1999. With the 2000 elections, the 106th Congress came to an end and the legislative docket was wiped clean. But the union’s list of legislative lobbying targets didn’t change for nine years. Though each Congress seated every two years starts fresh with a new slate of legislation, the union’s 2001 midyear and end of year forms suggested that the AMO continued to lobby on the same 16 outdated and, in many cases, dead pieces of legislation.

As the years rolled by, AMO continued to file form after form listing the same 1999-2000 legislative items. Though the union has updated its contact name, expense amount, lobbyist names, and filing methods, the fourth quarter disclosure form for 2009, filed on Jan. 20 of this year still claimed the union was lobbying the 111th Congress on the 16 items from a decade ago. Indeed, some AMO forms were even resubmitted with amendments to add lobbyist names omitted from the initial filings, but the issues section remained untouched. For the past several years, the forms have been signed electronically by AMO’s national president, Thomas J. Bethel.

That’s not just sloppy filing — it’s also a violation of federal law. The Lobbying Disclosure Act mandates that the form include for each quarterly period “a list of the specific issues upon which a lobbyist employed by the registrant engaged in lobbying activities, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a list of bill numbers and references to specific executive branch actions.” The government rarely pursues such cases, but a lobbyist who knowingly fails to comply can be punished with a civil fine of up to $200,000. If the failure is deemed “corrupt” in a court of law, it can also mean up to five years in prison.

Although the lobbying disclosure law designates the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives to “review, and, where necessary, verify and inquire to ensure the accuracy, completeness, and timeliness” of reports, apparently neither office caught the dozens of faulty reports filed by the AMO from 2001 to 2009.

Only after an inquiry from the Center did the Secretary of the Senate’s office confirm that it will send a letter to AMO notifying the union that it may have violated the disclosure law. If the AMO fails to appropriately respond within 60 days, the Secretary of the Senate is required to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for possible legal action. A spokeswoman for the office told the Center that it cannot comment on whether the letter has yet been sent.

A spokesman for the House Clerk said he would respond to Center inquiries but did not do so.

Mary Boyle, vice president for communications at Common Cause, called the situation “a complete embarrassment” that demonstrates why enforcement of the law is critical. “It’s incredible that for nine years this organization has filed the required paperwork that has just not even been looked at. It is a sad commentary,” she told the Center. “It’s not enough for Congress to just make rules on disclosure; those laws have got to be enforced.”

Multiple attempts to contact the AMO by phone and e-mail were not returned. Center reporters went to the AMO’s office in Washington, D.C., but no one was made available for comment. Weeks later, after an additional round of calls, the union’s national vice president at large told the Center he “decline[d] to comment.” But it seems the union did take notice. Following the Center’s numerous inquiries, the AMO’s first quarter 2010 lobbying filings, submitted on April 20, contain an entirely new list of lobbying agenda items.

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