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Lobbying Firm Underreported Income

Several lawyers specializing in congressional ethics said the initial misstatements may have been the result of sloppiness by the firm and lax enforcement. The underlying law was stripped of criminal sanctions or civil fines in the late 1990s, and the few Justice Department investigations since then have focused on lobbyists who failed to file, rather than those who filed incorrectly.

Stanley M. Brand, a former counsel for the House, said that "because the statute is so laxly enforced, people don't worry about it. Being precise . . . doesn't seem to matter" except in the current environment, when prosecutors are poring over "everything on the public record" involving firms implicated in their investigations.

Jan W. Baran, a former counsel to the Republican National Committee, said that while he has no information about the circumstances behind Copeland Lowery's reporting errors, another factor may also have been at work. Most Washington lobbying firms are boastful about their fees, Baran said, but advertising "payments by municipalities . . . can be counterproductive, if taxpayers get incensed about whether they should be hiring lobbyists."

A lawyer representing Copeland Lowery in the probe, Lanny A. Breuer, said the firm had amended its disclosures after an internal review was initiated because "regulators and the government are looking" at the fee declarations. Over the years, "there was a helluva lot of sloppiness in this reporting" about lobbying fees, Breuer said.

"I'm not saying our client shouldn't have been more careful," but the errors do not amount to acts punishable under a law that targets false statements to the government, he added.

A colleague, lawyer Robert K. Kelner, attributed the errors to confusion and inattention at the firm. Breuer acknowledged that the new filings were made after prosecutors in Southern California began sending subpoenas to some of Copeland Lowery's clients, seeking copies of their correspondence with the firm. The subpoenas appear to be aimed at learning what the partners in Copeland Lowery promised their clients they could obtain in earmarks, and particularly what they said about collaboration with Lewis.

Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that "what we've seen by Copeland Lowery is highly unusual.

Lobby firms make amendments all the time, but we have never seen it at that level." He said that the reason for the misstatements is "a question the prosecutors are going to have to answer."

Researchers Madonna Lebling, Alice Crites and Derek Willis contributed to this report.

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