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Elise Orlick,
U.S. PIRG

Chicago Board of Ethics Enforces Strong Lobbying Disclosure Laws

Congress has opportunity to pass similar reforms
For Immediate Release

CHICAGO, IL -- David Plouffe, a former campaign manager for President Obama, was fined $90,000 Thursday for failing to register as a lobbyist after reaching out to Mayor Rahm Emanuel on behalf of the ride-sharing company Uber. The fine, the largest ever imposed by the Chicago Board of Ethics, stands in stark contrast to federal lobbying disclosure laws that allow special interests to legally influence elected officials without reporting their work. Congress can follow the lead of this strong local example to pass ethics reforms that require transparency of all lobbying activity.

“Chicago's action demonstrates the importance of transparency in lobbying reporting, and this applies at the federal level, too,” said Andre Delattre, Executive Director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “It’s simple: anyone who professionally engages in lobbying activity should be required to report that work, without using loopholes to keep it in the shadows. Real ethics reform, similar to that being enforced in Chicago, would create meaningful transparency for voters.”

In November of 2015, Plouffe sent a series of emails directly to Mayor Emanuel’s private email account lobbying to lift rules imposed on Uber for picking up passengers at local airports. Chicago law requires the reporting of all lobbying activity, with a five day grace period. Plouffe waited until April 2016, 95 days after the exchange, to register as a lobbyist. The Board of Ethics fined him for every day after the grace period that he failed to register. The Mayor’s emails were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuits filed by the Better Government Association. 

Nationally, under current law, lobbyists are able to dodge registration under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) if they spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying, or if they lobby for multiple clients, spending no more than 20 percent of their time on a single client. Reports estimate that today’s lobbying industry is twice as large as official numbers suggest as a result of unregistered lobbying activity. Over the course of President Obama’s first year in office, when the administration enacted new policies targeting registered lobbyists, lobbying registrations dropped by 20 percent, reflecting an increase in undisclosed lobbying activity. 

During the 2016 elections, President Trump proposed a five-point ethics plan, re-instituting a five-year ban on all executive branch officials lobbying the government, creating the same ban for former members of Congress and their staffs, expanding the definition of “lobbyist” to close lobbying loopholes, issuing a lifetime ban against executive branch officials lobbying for a foreign government, and prohibiting foreign lobbyists from raising money in American elections. In his second week in office, the President signed an Executive Order instituting a five-year ban on his administration’s appointees lobbying the agency the worked for, and a lifetime ban on his top-level administration officials lobbying on behalf of foreign entities.

The rules signed by President Trump are the extent of his authority by Executive Order on the matter. Congress may pass rules implementing the remainder of the five-point plan, including closing the 20% loophole which has allowed lobbyists to avoid disclosing their work. 

If Congress strengthens the definition of lobbyist under the LDA, national ethics enforcement could follow this strong example in Chicago. Without a commitment to lobbying transparency, the influence industry will remain hidden to the public.

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U.S. PIRG, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.

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