A couple weeks ago I wrote about proposed changes to the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance, which were on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Ethics Commission. The proposed revisions would essentially require more detailed, much quicker disclosure of lobbyists’ projects and clarify precisely who is required to register. Well, the meeting happened. First there was a ton of public comment from lobbyists, all of it the familiar bitching and moaning that the power elite of Los Angeles will typically spew forth when they feel that their power is threatened in any way.
Next there was a series of embarrassing PDAs between Commissioners and lobbyists about how wrong it is to burden the “regulated community”1 with any oversight at all and how, despite all evidence to the contrary, lobbyists actually want to follow the laws. The Commissioners, that is, apart from Andrea Ordin who, alone among her colleagues, seems to remember why we have a lobbying ordinance in this City, basically took the position that if the lobbyists in attendance were upset by the proposed revisions then there was something wrong with the proposals.
Subsequently, the Commissioners asked Director of Policy Arman Tarzi a series of questions displaying their embarrassing ignorance of how lobbying actually works in this City, and finally Commission President Jessica Levinson directed the staff to solicit even more input from lobbyists on how they want to be regulated. This despite the fact that the revision process has already been going on for a year and a freaking half already. Anyway, I taped the whole 90 minutes of discussion, and you can watch it here:
- Part one — About an hour’s worth of mostly mendacious public comment from lobbyists followed by the beginning of the interrogation of the long-suffering, saintly, heroic Arman Tarzi by Commissioners who, mostly, don’t even seem to have read the material they’re deliberating on, or not to have comprehended it if they did read it.
- Part two — Ethics Commissioners falling over themselves to state how great lobbyists are and quizzing the staff about matters that, as commissioners, they ought already to understand.
If you’re wondering how important this issue is, just think back to the recent episode of the Skid Row Neighborhood Council formation effort. There we saw massive illegal lobbying efforts directed at successfully employed to convince Jose Huizar to subvert the subdivision election on behalf of anonymous clients who paid more than $45,000 for this service and whose identities, despite the requirements of the MLO, are still unknown to the public. It’s quite plausible that a more timely disclosure of this information would have changed the outcome of the election.
And turn the page for a detailed discussion of the some problems with the proposed revisions that the Commissioners purported to find. As you consider the Commissioners’ cataclysmic failure to regulate lobbying in Los Angeles, keep in mind that it’s people like the residents of Skid Row that they’re failing to protect.
The MLO currently requires quarterly reports of lobbying activity, which are due one month after the end of the quarter. The proposed revision would require bimonthly reports due 10 days after the end of the reporting period. In the public comment period the lobbyists universally complained about how this would burden them. One firm even brought in the person who compiles the reports for them to complain about how hard her job would be if she had to do them bimonthly. You can watch that nonsense right here. This really struck a chord with the Commissioners. For instance, here’s Jessica Levinson:
I am still troubled by the frequency. Like Commissioner Ordin I used to do timesheets. I have the feeling that she was a lot more diligent about it than I was. I didn’t just always set aside that ten, thirty, one hour at the end of the day. And I don’t want this to be the part time job of lobbyists.
This, of course, makes very little sense. First of all, as the staff pointed out a number of times, increasing the frequency of reporting doesn’t increase the amount of material to report. There’s one third less material in a bimonthly report than in a quarterly report, so presumably preparing it would take proportionately less time.
And even if it does take more time, so what? It’s essential for people to learn about lobbying activity as quickly as possible, the lobbyists are making a ton of money by lobbying, and if the revisions are legitimately going to require more work, they can just hire more staff. If that cuts into their profits they can charge their clients more. There’s so much money being made by developers and other lobbyist clients that it’s impossible to believe that a change in the reporting frequency is going to drive lobbying firms out of business.
Detailed reporting of contacts
Presently, the MLO only requires lobbyists to disclose which City agencies they lobby. These disclosures are, as you can imagine, usually impossibly vague. For instance lobbyists will disclose that they lobbied the City Council, without even giving a district, let alone the name of a human being. One of the most essential changes being proposed by the Ethics Commission staff is a requirement that lobbyists disclose the names and titles of City officials that they contact as part of an attempt to influence a City matter.2
This requirement was relentlessly parodied by lobbyists during public comment as somehow requiring them to disclose every time they say hello to a City employee in the elevator. This parody was taken up by the Commissioners,3 who proceeded to harass the staff mercilessly on behalf of the lobbyists. Just for instance, listen to this delusional little slab of angry hypothetical nonsense, too incoherent to transcribe, spoken by Commissioner Serena Obenstein, who seems to be trying to argue that there’s no sensible way to require disclosure of contacts because lobbyists might see a bunch of people they know in a City Council meeting.
And here is Jessica Levinson arguing that the present disclosure requirements are already adequate:
We’re getting at what we want to get at, which is who’s trying to influence our elected officials, who are they compensated by, and how is that affecting our officials basically, how is that affecting their credibility, how is that affecting their integrity, how is that affecting their decision-making process, without jamming the advice line.
These are the words of a person who’s deeply ignorant about how lobbyists work in Los Angeles. Right now lobbyists can disclose that they lobbied “City Council” about “DTLA” and be in compliance with the law. Without the more detailed information to be required by the proposed revisions it’s impossible to understand what that means via requests for public records, by questioning City officials, or by any other means.
In this case, we’re fortunate that one4 Commissioner, Andrea Ordin, understands exactly what’s at stake:
On the reporting of who and when and about what, that is, to me, absolutely crucial that it be expanded from what we have now. And the reason for that, of course, is that we have seen some of the absolutely legal, absolutely appropriate, absolutely well-done reporting that gives absolutely zero information to people who are trying to find out what’s going on. You can’t figure out…it happens in Downtown Los Angeles, it happens in seventeen departments. Maybe one department had four minutes and there’s been three weeks of work with another department. So there absolutely must be a dramatic change from where we are today.
Ten day reporting deadline
Presently the law requires lobbyists to file quarterly reports, which are due one month after the end of the quarter. Thus it’s possible for lobbyists to work on an issue in January and not report it until May 1. Of course, this makes it impossible for citizens or reporters to understand, report on, or react to lobbying efforts until the issue is very stale. Jessica Levinson found this to be far too much for our poor beleaguered lobbyists to bear:
The ten day deadline is something that.. well, we’ve heard from Ms. Heinz that it can take basically ten to fifteen days at the end of a quarter. So the ten day deadline seems to be something that basically we could massage.
And here’s Commissioner Serena Obenstein, again making as little sense as possible, again seemingly distraught over the fate of the poor oppressed lobbyists of Los Angeles, complaining about the same thing.
Compensation-based definition of lobbyist
The Commission actually didn’t get around to discussing this matter much but the lobbyists were against it, so the Commission certainly will discuss it in the future. The issue is that presently the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance requires lobbyists to register if they’re paid for 30 hours of lobbying over three consecutive months. It’s proposed to change this to being paid $5,000 in a calendar year. This, of course, would be a zillion times easier to prove.
Now, for some reason the Commissioners became obsessed during this meeting with the idea that, rather than revising the MLO, staff ought to figure out how to encourage unregistered lobbyists, of whom someone estimated that there are about 150 in the City, to get right with the law. This is essentially a red herring thrown out by the lobbyists to get everyone’s mind off the actual proposed revisions, but the Commissioners snaffled it up and ran with it. For instance, listen here as Commissioner Serena Obenstein, adopting the lobbyist party line wholesale, rants ignorantly at her staff on the subject:
And it gets to Commissioner Campos’s point that is if the intent is to figure out how we bring in unregistered lobbyists. That is if the point is to make sure that the public knows what’s going on we want people who are potentially out of compliance [unintelligible] rather than figuring out how to regulate more.
Of course, it’s clear that the only way to encourage unregistered lobbyists to register is to have (a) very clear requirements for registration and (b) effective and rapid enforcement of the registration requirement. Right now it is essentially impossible to prove that someone was paid for 30 hours of lobbying in the required timespan. Even if it’s possible to establish probable cause by looking at public records, emails, and so on, there could very well be no extant records that actually definitively prove 30 compensated hours. Even subpoenas can’t turn up records that don’t exist.
However, if registration is triggered by $5,000 worth of compensation then public records could be used to establish probable cause and then financial records could be supoenaed. It’s not actually possible to opt out of the financial system so, barring complex coverups and conspiracies, the evidence will exist. The change to a compensation-based definition will make the registration requirement enforceable again. This is the only way to incentivize unregistered lobbyists to stop breaking the law.
Everyone loves transparency … NOT
It’s possible that the most upsetting aspect of a very, very upsetting display was that every single Commissioner started every single pro-lobbyist speech with an expression of how much they loved transparency, but… For instance, here is Serena Oberstein with even more duty-shirking nonsensical mendacity:
I’m all for transparency. And I want to make sure that the people that are complying and we know are going to comply that we are making it easier. … I have been finance director on campaigns and so I know the level of detail, and so it still is additional paperwork. And again, noting that the people in the room are showing up, they’re going to do the best … they want it to be right, they want to be in compliance. I don’t doubt that it will still be a significant undertaking. So figuring out how it’s not as significant I think is the direction we should go in.
And here’s Commission President Jessica Levinson with yet another disingenuous paean to transparency:
I think that transparency is incredibly important. I think that every court from the Supreme Court to superior courts has acknowledged the idea that when the public is armed with information about who is trying to sway the decisions of their elected officials that our representative democracy just works better. But I also don’t think that we should regulate people out of business. Those are two interests that are difficult to balance.
And here’s Jessica Levinson again:
Commissioner Ordin said something, and before we leave this I would like to lend more support to it, which is I think we, and I’m guilty of this, we kind of wax poetic about transparency and how important it is to be able to have this information to hold our public officials accountable and then we don’t really think about exactly the mode of delivery. I think there’s two things that we should be thinking about. One is clearly the language of the MLO. And I think that’s very important. And then two is the visual distribution. I think we can all sit here and talk about how great we’re gonna feel that we’re getting the public the right information but I’m not totally convinced how many people are actually looking. The press corps is dwindling, how many people are actually looking at that. And so I very much want to make sure that we’re striking the right balance between the public’s right to know and not regulating people out of business or out of sanity. And at the same token I think we need to be mindful of the fact that we all live in a bit of a bubble where we think about these things a lot.
Yes, you read that correctly. The president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission is actually arguing that no one reads the disclosure reports anyway and newspapers are vanishing, so why should they burden lobbyists by making them include more detail? That’s what she actually said. And history repeats itself, although in this case contra Marx both times as farce. For comparison, here’s Eric Garcetti in 2010 making essentially the same morally bankrupt point as he gleefully and successfully torpedoed that year’s proposed MLO revisions:
It’s very easy to just take the ethical stance of just go as far as you can this way because that’s the most ethical thing, when I think, in reality, over the time I’ve been here the most ethical thing is to make things both properly disclosed and easy enough for people to access what they need to in a democracy without making it a really difficult thing.
So listen, I know this post is a rambling mess, like the meeting itself. There’s evidently just too much horribleness here for me to discuss coherently. And believe me, there is a ton of important stuff I didn’t discuss at all. If you have time I really recommend watching the whole thing (Part One and Part Two. But also, if you care about the regulation of lobbyists in Los Angeles, I urge you to write to the Ethics Commission with comments. Here is a copy of the recommendations, which is also worth reading. You may well find other things that matter, but for me the important issues right now are:
- Detailed reporting of contacts including names and titles of City officials influenced.
- Bimonthly reporting of lobbying activity rather than quarterly.
- Compensation-based requirement for registration rather than time-based.
- Ten day deadline for reporting rather than the month that’s now required.
You should send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I think it would be best to give specific examples if you have any. I am in the process of writing a long letter to the Commission and I will publish it here within the next couple weeks. But the more letters there are the better. The next meeting isn’t until October, so there’s probably no rush.5 To make sure you don’t miss anything, you can sign up to receive announcements via email.
The image of Andrea Ordin at the head of this post is ©2017 MichaelKohlhaas.Org and is a transformative modification of this public record.
- This is what an oversight body calls the subjects of its oversight after it has already sunk irretrievably deeply into the morass of regulatory capture.
- This is a technical term meaning essentially discretionary decisions by City officials. For instance, approving a variance from the planning code is a City matter. Approving a permit for a by-right building project is not a City matter. Here is Heather Holt, executive director of the Ethics Commission staff, making this precise point to the Commissioners.
- Except, again, for Andrea Ordin, who really seemed to understand what was at stake.
- And unfortunate that it’s only one.
- Some of the Commissioners did suggest that the staff hold some hearings before then, but it’s not clear that this will happen.