My Suggestions on Ethics Reform

Today I sent the following suggestions to my council colleagues on how we can put some real teeth in the Mayor’s proposal to regulate lobbyists and limit campaign contributions:

The purpose of creating a lobbyist registration system is to reduce the likelihood of corruption at City Hall.  But for this system to be effective, we must focus on the nature of the problem, then develop a system that will, to the fullest extent possible, create a climate hostile to such corruption. 

What corrupt activity are we trying to prevent?

Buying influence from the mayor and councilmembers.  Trading money for a favorable vote. 

Who would have incentive to bribe an elected official?  Who would a corrupt elected official think they could extract a bribe from? 

Someone who’s got a financial stake in a decision by the council.

Are paid lobbyists the problem? 

No.  But like smoke denotes fire, paid lobbyists indicate there’s somebody who has such a significant financial stake in a council decision that they would expend money on a professional to fight on their behalf.

How do we keep a “financial stakeholder” from paying off the mayor or a councilmember? 

We can’t.  People who are corrupt will find a way around any rule we create.  But we can shed so much light on the relationship between a financial stakeholder and city officials that we make it very difficult for them to trade money for influence.

So how do we shed light on the relationship between financial stakeholders and city officials? 

By requiring them to disclose the same information we are requiring paid lobbyists to provide.  And by requiring both lobbyists and financial stakeholders to disclose information that illuminates and gives context to the extent of their relationships with city officials.

The following changes to the proposed ordinance attempt to accomplish just that. 

 Proposed Changes to Lobbyist Registration Ordinance

Require “Financial Stakeholders” who lobby city officials to register and disclose their meetings with city officials.

A “Financial Stakeholder” is a person or business that stands to receive a direct, material benefit resulting from a vote by the City Council.  This includes, but is not limited to, applicants, real property owners, and real property purchasers, as well as their employees, agents and assigns, who are seeking from the city:

  • Tax abatements;
  • Housing tax credits;
  • Historic tax credits;
  • Federal grants administered by the city;
  • Tax increment financing projects;
  • Re-zoning requests;
  • Anyone who hires or employs a lobbyist to meet with city officials on their behalf in regard to an issue pending before the city council

Prohibit gifts from lobbyists and financial stakeholders.

Prohibit a lobbyist or financial stakeholder from giving money or goods to any business that a city official has an economic interest in.

Require monthly (rather than quarterly) filing of disclosure forms.

  • The real check and balance in this entire system is the public.  This system gives the public and the media some measure of access to what is going on behind closed doors at city hall.  But this information is most meaningful before a matter is voted on by the council.  That is when questions of influence are most pertinent and (perhaps) damning:  Councilmember X met a lobbyist at a country club twice a week for a month?  Councilmember Y’s meetings with a lobbyist included a major campaign contributor/powerful Dallasite?
  • Monthly reports will give the public access to important information when it is most relevant.  If reports are filed only every three months, the public won’t have the opportunity to bring to light arguably compromising information before a matter is voted on by the city council.  Quarterly disclosures may make the disclosed information moot and blunt the goal of this disclosure system.

Include more information about each meeting a lobbyist or financial stakeholder has with city officials: 

  • Name of city official(s)
  • Date of meeting
  • Length of meeting
  • Location of meeting
  • Attendees, identifying lobbyist staff, financial stakeholders, and other attendees

This information is critical to addressing the purpose of this disclosure system:  to illuminate the extent of relationships between lobbyists and city officials.  Simply listing the city officials that a lobbyist met with (the proposed standard) does not distinguish between those city officials who met with a lobbyists two hours every week from those who simply received a single, two minute phone call.  By providing the public with access to information outlining the depth of a relationship between a lobbyist and city official, we reduce the likelihood of corruption.

Prohibit campaign consultants for the mayor or councilmembers from also serving as lobbyists on issues that will be decided by the city council or a board appointed by the city council.

Campaign consultants for powerful members of the council may exert too much influence over other councilmembers when that consultant is also working as a paid lobbyists on matters pending before the council.

Flat annual fee for registrants (not graduated based on number of clients).

If a paid lobbyist and her client both lobby city officials, only the paid lobbyist has to register (assuming the filing form will include information that would name the client).  If the financial stakeholder does not hire a lobbyist, but nonetheless lobbies city officials on his own, he must register and file disclosures as a lobbyist.

Require registrants to disclose only the following in relation to lobbying on a pending matter:

  • Compensation to other than full-time employees
  • Reimbursement to other than full-time employees

This information can reveal if community leaders (or others) are being paid to drum up support for a particular matter or if their support is genuine.

The other proposed disclosures – amounts expended on office expenses, advertising, personal sustenance, lodging, and travel – are unnecessary.  Why do we need this information and how will it help prevent corruption?  Lobbyists are not the problem; the problem is corrupt city officials.  So unless the required information helps us root out or prevent corruption, we shouldn’t burden lobbyists with disclosing irrelevant, insignificant private business information.

Eliminate requirement for lobbyists to disclose emails or other written communications to city officials.

How does requiring a lobbyist to list whom they’ve sent emails illuminate the relationship between lobbyists and city officials?  It doesn’t give a sense of which city officials they’ve had protracted and frequent email correspondence with – it’s just a list of email recipients.  A smart lobbyist will simply send a short email to the entire council so they can claim each on their disclosure form, thus camouflaging those with whom they’ve been in regular email contact.

This requirement sheds no real light on the relationship between a lobbyist and city official and is ineffectual.  Moreover, since emails to city officials are subject to open records requests, this requirement is superfluous.

Eliminate from definition of “lobbyist” someone who “expends $200 or more in a calendar quarter” on lobbying efforts

Why is it significant to track lobbyists who expend funds, but who are not paid for their efforts?  A neighborhood attorney might volunteer his or her time to assist a neighborhood in fighting a nearby development, and might personally pay for $200 worth of photocopies.  In all likelihood, neither the neighborhood nor the volunteer attorney has such a significant financial stake that in the outcome of the city council’s decision that they would try to bribe a city official.  So there is no need to require them to participate in this disclosure process.

We should be focused on requiring disclosures from lobbyists who receive compensation from their clients.  Such payment indicates that the clients have such a significant, real financial stake in the outcome of a city council decision that they would hire someone to try to persuade city officials.  Those are the people who would have an incentive to bribe city officials, or who would be vulnerable to being extorted by corrupt city officials. 

Eliminate prohibition on lobbyists accepting contingency fee cases

How does prohibiting contingency fee cases reduce the likelihood that a lobbyist would try to bribe a city official?  Why do we want to regulate how a private business can be paid by its clients, when the real problem isn’t paid lobbyists but corrupt city officials?

Proposed Changes to Contribution Restrictions 

Zoning cases aren’t the only matters where significant financial interests are at stake.  Tax abatements, TIF project requests, housing tax credits, contracts with the City of Dallas — all of these matters have very serious monetary consequences for the applicant.  So why not expand the proposed contribution limitations to include these matters as well?

Proposed Changes:
Expand matters to include pending:

  • Tax abatements;
  • Housing tax credits;
  • Historic tax credits;
  • Federal grants administered by the city;
  • Tax increment financing projects;
  • Re-zoning requests

Contributions are prohibited 60 days prior to application for any of these matters and six months after the matter has been decided by the council or withdrawn.