State of Neglect: Texas Ethics Commission strained to police lobbyists' activities
By RANDY LEE LOFTIS / The Dallas Morning News
Friday, January 2, 2009
For the weak and the vulnerable, Texas has long been an especially hard place. Year after year, national surveys place the state at or near the bottom in such categories as assistance to poor children and the malnourished, treatment of the mentally ill and care of the disabled. This story is part of The Dallas Morning News' 'State of Neglect' series examining how the state determines whom it protects and whom it excludes– and how special interests and their lobbyists strongly influence the writing of laws and the workings of state government.
When reading lobbying information on the Texas Ethics Commission's Web site, be aware of what you're not seeing. Required lobbying reports don't tell the whole story, and the fraction of reported information the commission puts online reveals even less.
"There's not much due diligence at all on [the commission's] part with lobbying reports," said Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group based in Austin.
With more than 1,600 lobbyists filing monthly reports on their work for more than 2,700 clients, the main burden for ensuring compliance falls on the lobbyists. "When the reports are filed, there's an affidavit that says the information the lobbyist is submitting is true and correct," said ethics commission spokesman Tim Sorrells.
In general, the Legislature determines what type of information lobbyists must file under state law. The eight-member ethics commission – with four members appointed by the governor and two each by the lieutenant governor and House speaker – decides how that's done and enforces violations. It also enforces Texas' campaign finance law.
To do those jobs, Texas has given its ethics enforcers one of the smallest staffs and budgets of any state agency – for 2009, 37 full-time employees and just over $2 million.
Clients and influence
When lobbyists register in Texas, they don't have to disclose whether they are former legislators or state officials information that would help the public judge which ones wield the most influence. Michael Toomey, for example, appears on the ethics commission's list as just another lobbyist. But his background includes three terms in the state House and time as chief of staff for Republican Govs. Bill Clements and Rick Perry, in addition to his lobbying work for insurers, electric and chemical companies, drug companies, state contractors and others.
Lobbyists must list the broad topics they lobby on, such as health care or transportation. Although the registration form includes a place to report specific administrative actions the lobbyist is working on, most lobbyists leave it blank.
Lobbyists do not have to disclose specific legislation or policies they seek to influence, or which legislators, officials and agencies they contact.
The ethics commission's Web site does not identify lobbyists by firm, so it's hard for the public to track a lobbying firm's collective influence. That information is available only by requesting individual lobbyists' registrations from the commission.
Because the commission does not require uniform spelling or even punctuation in listings, lobbyist client information is frequently confusing. That's why the commission's Web site treats Dallas-based telecom giant AT&T, for example, as if it were six different companies.
Only by adding up all six lobby lists does AT&T's full reach in the state Capitol become clear: 119 lobbyists being paid as much as $8.9 million in 2008 alone.
Lobbyists report income from each client only in ranges; under a 2007 state law, an exact amount is required for contracts of $500,000 or more. Despite that mandate, none of the 10 lobbying contracts over $500,000 reported for 2008 on the ethics commission's Web site lists an exact amount.
On the other end of the spectrum, 192 lobbying contracts in 2008 were reported as paying the lobbyist $0. Some clients were nonprofits, but many were anything but – global oil companies, credit-card or insurance companies, big manufacturers and electric companies. Sorrells could not explain the zero payment reports and referred questions to the lobbyists involved.
The lobbyist chooses how to report – either the amount already paid, due (listed as "earned") or promised ("prospective"). Nearly all lobbyists report only prospective income; they don't have to amend reports later to disclose actual income.
Reported figures don't include all income from a client. If a lobbyist is also a client's lawyer, consultant or regular employee, neither that income nor, in many cases, the existence of the relationship is reported.
At the same time, some lobbying firms artificially inflate income when they report the full value of a firm's contract as individual income for each lobbyist. For example, a three-lobbyist firm with a $50,000 contract might list that amount for each lobbyist, making the client's total lobbying expenditures appear to be $150,000.
Other lobbyists, especially lawyers, list their own firms as clients and then report lobbying income from the firm as well as from each client, raising the possibility of double-counting.
Lobbyists must report their spending on food, entertainment, travel and event tickets for state officials. In most cases, if they spend more than $100 in a day, they must also identify the recipients.
However, the commission doesn't put recipients' names on its Web site. Anyone wanting to know which legislators or agency officials got free dinners or golf trips must request detailed reports from the commission.
Many lobbyists and their firms' political action committees make large contributions to the same elected officials they lobby, but the public has no simple way to track the relationships. The ethics commission does not provide an online link connecting a lobbyist's lobbying activities and campaign contributions.
"That would be easy for the commission to do," said Wheat of Texans for Public Justice, "if they wanted to."
Rules governing lobbyists in Texas
• Lobbyists must register with the Texas Ethics Commission, disclosing clients, topics covered and a pay range from each client: less than $10,000; $10,000-$24,999; $25,000-$49,999; etc., up to over $500,000, for which the exact amount is required. Lobbyists must report spending on officials' travel, food and beverages, gifts, etc.
• Former agency board members, commissioners and executive directors must wait two years before lobbying their old agencies. Former senior officials may never lobby on specific cases they handled at the agency.
• Those restrictions do not apply to ex-legislators who become lobbyists. They have no waiting period or other limits.