published on July 22, 2016 - 8:09 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

(AP) — California’s top political watchdog led her peers in approving a rule Thursday aiming to crack down on people who fail to disclose efforts to influence government officials.

Lobbyists are required to register with the state if the amount they make for communicating with state officials to sway public policy reaches $2,000 in one month.

But there has been no mechanism to thoroughly check on people who don’t register but are suspected of reaching that threshold.

The Fair Political Practices Commission unanimously passed a change backed by Chairwoman Jodi Remke allowing state regulators to require those believed to be lobbying to provide evidence showing how much they’re being paid to influence government officials. If they don’t, the agency automatically will find them in violation of state transparency laws.

“This is a way to drive compliance and get people to register and disclose who is paying them to try to influence public officials,” Remke said.

Critics say the change forces the accused to prove their innocence, rather than the government to show wrongdoing. Many lawyers, support staff at lobbying firms and citizens who reach out to legislators could be required to demonstrate that their jobs do not involve swaying public policy — or face administrative or judicial sanctions, skeptics of the change say.

Remke and agency attorneys said investigators are currently stymied in most probes of suspected unregistered lobbyists because the people who are targeted can simply say that they do not qualify as lobbyists.

The commission decided to change the process to authorize investigators to conduct deeper probes of people they believe are skirting disclosure.

The new rule permits investigators to demand suspected unregistered lobbyists provide “sufficient evidence” rebutting agency claims; otherwise they forfeit their ability to contest the claims.

Remke said it’s up to those investigators to assess that evidence and determine whether it’s strong enough to dispute the agency’s findings. If investigators are unconvinced, they can recommend to the commissioners that the presumed violators face sanctions.

If investigators conclude a person has presented believable evidence to mount a defense, then they pass the case to the commissioners to deliberate and decide whether to issue sanctions. The commissioners can ask an administrative law judge for advice.

“We think of this as an obligation for people to understand their responsibilities,” Remke said.

The rule says unregistered lobbyists can provide bills, receipts or other records to establish that their compensation was not used to get access to lawmakers.

Commissioner Gavin Wasserman echoed opponents’ concerns that the change gives the agency an unfair advantage since it acts as both accuser and judge. But he supported its overall goals and joined the panel in a 5-0 vote.

The California Political Attorneys Association and Chapman University constitutional law professor Ronald Rotunda, a former commission member, said in opposition letters that the rule changes would effectively shift the burden of proof to suspected unregistered lobbyists, violating their constitutional rights.

“This makes it a lot easier for the prosecution, which is why it would strike most people as unfair,” Rotunda said Thursday.

Remke said the changes are aimed at letting citizens know who is trying to solicit votes from state lawmakers.

Earlier this year, the five-member commission approved new rules to prevent unregistered lobbyists from pitching themselves as experts on topics of interest to legislators and required additional spending disclosure requirements for registered lobbyists.

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