After a yearslong process to close loopholes in Austin ethics rules, city leaders passed stronger regulations that went into effect in June. Among the new rules: Lobbyists must disclose how much their clients are paying them to sway Austin officials, as they also must report on the state and federal level.
Nah, said a swath of local lobbyists.
At least 17 Austin lobbyists who are also lawyers refused to complete the form on the grounds that their compensation is privileged attorney-client communication. The lobbyist reporting form asks for a ballpark range of payment.
So local activist and attorney Fred Lewis marched into City Hall on Tuesday afternoon with a stack of ethics complaints against David Anderson, Leah Bojo, Amanda Brown, Peter Cesaro, Stephen Drenner, Laci Ehlers, David Hartman, William Herring, Jeffrey Howard, John Joseph, Michele Lynch, Pamela Madere, Nikelle Meade, Steven Metcalfe, Amanda Swor, Michael Whellan and Talley Williams.
Their refusal to disclose compensation to City Hall appears to have been coordinated. Fourteen of the 17, from five different law firms, wrote the exact same sentence on their forms: “Disclosure of client compensation is not provided because such disclosure would violate applicable state law in Texas Disciplinary Rule 1.05 and Chapter 81 of the Texas Government Code.”
None of the lobbyists returned phone calls seeking comment Tuesday or Wednesday.
Lewis, whose push for more serious ethics rules in Austin helped lead to the overhaul, said he was frustrated with the lawyers’ refusal to comply and with the city’s failure, so far, to enforce the measures.
“It matters whether a special interest is willing to spend $200,000 or $2,000,” Lewis said. “It tells you something about the magnitude of their interest.”
Not all lawyers shied away from providing the information. Prominent city power-brokers Richard Suttle and David Armbrust filed the disclosures without objection, as did at least a dozen other lawyer lobbyists, according to Lewis’ analysis.
He initially filed, and then withdrew, two additional complaints against lobbyists who first declined to provide the compensation ranges and then later complied. One of them, Mark Nathan, updated the form Wednesday and said in an email to Lewis that his rationale for not providing the information no longer applied and the complaint brought it to his attention.
Lewis argued that on the state level, seeing the compensation has painted a picture of which interests are most represented. For example, in 2013, about 19 percent of all lobbying money was spent on energy and natural resource issues, versus only 2 percent for both agricultural and labor issues, according to a report from Texans for Public Justice.
Jack Gullahorn, a lawyer and lobbyist who headed the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas for 15 years, said many lobbyists, including himself, don’t think compensation disclosures should be necessary. But he’s unaware of anyone challenging the state rules, which are virtually identical to the new Austin rules. Both require compensation to be noted in $25,000 to $50,000 range categories.
“How different is the state? It really isn’t,” he said. “The 1,900 lobbyists who register with the state all have to report compensation. … I’m sympathetic to the fact that people don’t think it’s necessary, but in my opinion (the city) can require it.”
City Council Member Leslie Pool, who helped spearhead the new rules, said she was surprised by those who refused to comply.
“We had a huge stakeholder process,” Pool said. “We delayed implementation of the reports until June. The city clerk works pretty hard to explain it to people. It’s not unlike doing financial reporting, which I do my own for my campaign. And they are just not filing. There has to be some response that the city makes.”
For now, Pool acknowledged that the rules are relatively toothless. Even if the city’s Ethics Review Commission, a council-appointed board, finds the lobbyists violated ethics rules, it would still have to refer the cases to the city attorney for actual prosecution. The offense would be a Class C misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $500.
“This is new, so we wanted to see how it rolled out,” Pool said. “Lobbyists choosing not to file as a protest isn’t my expected outcome. I don’t want to make more rules; I was hoping people would follow the ones we put in place.”