Reporting System for Lobbyists Called Inaccurate, Inadequate

With states eager to spend, President Barack Obama announced new guidelines Friday limiting the role lobbyists can play in determining how $787 billion in economic stimulus money will be used. Video by AP
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

The lobbying firm that features Democratic power broker Harold Ickes reported earning nearly $700,000 from its clients last year. But according to disclosure reports filed with Congress, more than half of the money was spent on no lobbying at all.

The case illustrates a common phenomenon in the lobbying world, in which firms report collecting money from clients while claiming on public disclosure forms that they did not contact any members of Congress or administration officials in return.

A study to be released today by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics identifies 19,000 such lobbying reports over the past decade, totaling nearly $600 million in payments. The frequency of such reports is also increasing, the study shows, accounting for more than one out of 10 filings last year.

Many lobbyists say the situations are attempts to be transparent even in cases in which firms end up doing no lobbying work during a given period. Ickes said in an interview that his company, the Ickes & Enright Group, files lobbying reports throughout the year for clients even when direct lobbying activities have been sporadic or nonexistent.

"Our lawyers advise us to be on the cautious, conservative side," Ickes said. "It's easy to forget these things -- you make a phone call or you go to a couple meetings -- so we make it a practice to err on the side of caution. . . . We do a lot of work that has nothing to do with lobbying."

But lobbying reform advocates said that the number of blank forms shows how inaccurate the reporting system is and that it raises the possibility that some firms are failing to disclose all of their lobbying activities, as required under federal disclosure laws.

"There's a black hole here," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of CRP, which tracks money in politics on its Web site, "It provides an opportunity for lobbyists to have their cake and eat it, too. What's this money for? These reports almost raise more questions than they answer."

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the nonprofit Public Citizen, said the reports also underscore how much indirect lobbying activity goes on in Washington undetected by oversight efforts, including grass-roots efforts to drum up support for legislation and organized e-mail campaigns aimed at Congress.

"There may be nothing sinister here, but it does show all the things we are missing out on," Holman said. "It shows why we should require grass-roots lobbying to be reported at the very least, because that is so much of what these companies do."

In its report, CRP singled out lobbying reports in which a firm disclosed income from clients while leaving the rest of the form blank, including sections that require listing lobbyists' names and lobbying activity. The report highlighted several big cases, including the 2008 filings by Ickes & Enright.

In another prominent example, the lobbying firm started last year by former senators John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), called the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, reported nearly $1 million in payments from clients such as AT&T, Northrop Grumman and Shell Oil without reporting lobbying activity. The fees amounted to 13 percent of the firm's total income, according to CRP. A spokesman for the firm declined to comment.

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