Lobbying oversight still weak
This year’s State Integrity comes in the wake of a major lobbying scandal that rocked the state for years, after The Arizona Republic in 2009 revealed criminal wrongdoing involving officials of college football’s Fiesta Bowl, including a scheme to reimburse employees for their donations to politicians. Today, the state continues to receive bad marks for poor oversight of lobbying activity, financial disclosure loopholes and vaguely worded reporting statutes.
Despite past calls to improve on these weaknesses, nothing changed. State lobbying statutes remain the same as when lobbyists and legislators alike failed to report the free Fiesta Bowl junkets for those who went on to vote in favor of legislation helping the college football post-season game.
The secretary of state’s office collects reports of lobbying activity, but it is neither required nor authorized to perform compliance reviews. Such lax oversight has created a reporting regime that allows for tens of thousands of dollars to be reported erroneously in a single transaction.
Reporting exemptions allow about 90 percent of all lobbying dollars spent in the state to go reported without listing a beneficiary, either because a large group of public officials was invited to a lobbying event, or because the lobbyist reported spending less than $20 to promote his or her clients’ interests.
The county attorney who investigated the Fiesta Bowl scandal said the state’s statutes could be read different ways, leading to different interpretations of requirements. As a result, none of the lawmakers who failed to report the junkets in their financial disclosure forms were subject to criminal prosecution.
Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, and Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, both favor a comprehensive ban on gifts for elected officials. They also said they think a current citizen petition drive, aimed at implementing a gift ban, may find enough to support to end up on the 2016 ballot.
Wercinski said polling shows a public willingness to go beyond even greater lobbying disclosure.
Almost across the board, Arizona agencies consistently fail to follow key principles for “opening up” government data, which the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group, circulated in 2010 as a policy prescription to make information “open and accessible to the public.”
These include adherence to ideas like “primacy” — in which the government makes data available in its primary or most original form possible, with details on how that data was collected. That would apply to master files and raw data, not merely a summary file or descriptions of what is contained in that master file. This would enable the public to verify that the information was collected properly and recorded accurately.
Kathryn Marquoit, Arizona’s assistant ombudsman for public access, offers guidance and dispute resolution when there’s disagreement over how public records are being handled. She said original files fall squarely into the state’s public records laws.
“If a document exists, the public has a right to see the entire document or a redacted version,” she said. “I don’t think a summary is an acceptable substitute.”
Another common shortcoming involves data files that cannot be loaded into spreadsheet software, including “snapshot” versions of original spreadsheets captured in PDF files, which cannot be manipulated. Arizona agencies have expressed concern that data can be edited or altered if original data files are made available to the public.
Marquoit said the possibility that public records could be misused is not an acceptable reason for withholding them. “Anyone can misuse a public record,” she said, adding that not complying with public records laws based on those fears would “completely obliterate the public records laws.”
Court cases have touched on these issues with rulings that agencies do not have to create new files for public inspection, and that government documents and data are considered public records.
The open government prescriptions call for making data available online and at little or no cost. But in Arizona, large databases such as lobbying disclosure records and campaign finance reports are available only on compact disc for $25.