Editorial: LA unions should be considered lobbyists


When is a paid attorney a lobbyist? And, more importantly, when and how much information should paid attorneys be required to disclose publicly about their lobbying work?

For years, Los Angeles’ rules governing lobbying were muddy, and many would-be lobbyists avoided registering with the Ethics Committee and disclosing their efforts to influence policy. The City Council is now considering tightening those rules in a long-overdue update to the city’s municipal lobbying ordinance, and most of the changes are big improvements that will increase transparency.

But there are still areas of concern, including a last-minute change proposed by Council President Paul Krekorian that would, for the first time, explicitly exempt union workers from registering as lobbyists. Currently, union employees are required to register as lobbyists if they spend 30 hours in three months lobbying city workers and elected officials on issues other than city agreements. Workers from unions representing builders, carpenters and hotel workers have registered as lobbyists this year.

Instead, under the proposal, union employees would fall into a new category of paid attorneys called “non-profit applicants,” which would be subject to fewer restrictions and disclosure requirements than a lobbyist or lobbying firm.

Under the proposal, any nonprofit or union with an employee who pays at least $5,000 a year to lobby city officials or departments would be required to file quarterly reports with the Ethics Committee listing the employee’s name, what he or she does for she advocates, and the official or the department to be disclosed lobbying. This is similar to what lobbyists have to report.

But there are big differences when it comes to restrictions. Lobbyists may not give gifts or make campaign contributions to a city candidate (although they may provide input from clients who must report them). However, non-profit applicants are permitted to offer gifts and campaign contributions, and they are not required to submit reports detailing gifts to city officials, political contributions, or fundraising on behalf of city candidates.

Maybe that’s not a big deal for most nonprofits. According to the rules of the Internal Revenue Services, 501(c)(3) are charitable non-profit organizations forbidden to endorse or endorse political candidates, although their employees can do so. But labor organizations are 501(c)(5) Nonprofit Organizations. You may support candidates and make campaign donations. The classification of unions as non-profit applicants rather than lobbyists creates a significant loophole in a city where unions are key players in elections.

Another difference: Registered lobbyists are not allowed to serve as city councilors to reduce potential conflicts of interest. But non-profit filers would be allowed to serve on such commissions.

Krekorian said he tries to distinguish between professional lobbyists, who are hired to represent a position, and employees, who lobby on behalf of their organization. His proposal for the nonprofit filer category came after charitable nonprofits protested that a previous proposal would lump them in with lobbyists and subject them to cumbersome registration and reporting.

But his proposal would allow key political actors not to have to register their staff as lobbyists and to comply with key regulations aimed at curbing or disclosing their influence and spending. Powerhouse organizations like the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor would not have to register as lobbyist employers. Even large non-profit organizations like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation or USC would not do this.

The municipal lobbying ordinance was passed in 1994 to ensure that city officials and the public know who is being paid by whom to influence government decisions, but it has not been updated since. Previous councilors ignored the Ethics Committee’s recommendations to modernize the law. Therefore, it is important that this city council – in response to the recent scandals – finally presses ahead with reforms.

The proposed update would reverse an ill-considered voting measure developed by the City Council in 2006, without input from the Ethics Committee, that created an unenforceable definition of a lobbyist – someone who spends 30 hours lobbying in three months. With no one shadowing lobbyists and counting their minutes of persuasion, some were able to bypass registration.

The proposed standard will require registration if an individual is eligible to receive at least $5,000 a year for lobbying, which is clearer and easier to enforce — and will attract more paid advocates. The updated law would also require lobbyists to make verbal statements to neighborhood councils and to make clear in public filings what their position is.

These are all good changes – but not enough. Angelenos should know who is being paid to influence city decision-makers. By closing some loopholes, the council should not open new ones, particularly for some of the city’s largest and most influential unions and nonprofits.

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