Austin lobbyists agree to disclose how much they’re paid

Seventeen Austin lobbyist lawyers who initially declined to cooperate with city ethics rules requiring them to tell how much their clients pay them have changed their minds.

A day before the city’s Ethics Review Commission was set to hear ethics complaints Wednesday from local activist Fred Lewis, the city let Lewis know that all the lawyers had agreed to provide the information, he said.

Austin began requiring registered lobbyists last year to give a ballpark figure for what clients pay them to woo city officials, as they must disclose on the state and federal level, after a yearslong process to close loopholes in city ethics rules. But at least 17 lobbyists who are also lawyers refused to do so, saying the disclosure would violate attorney-client privilege.

BACKGROUND: What do clients pay to sway Austin City Council? Lobbyists won’t say.

Lewis filed ethics complaints in November against all 17 in an effort to make the city enforce the provision.

“It matters whether a special interest is willing to spend $200,000 or $2,000,” he said at the time. “It tells you something about the magnitude of their interest.”

Those 17 reversed course and filed full reports this month for the last quarter of 2017. All of them reported receiving less than $10,000 from each client except for one: Michael Whellan received between $10,000 and $24,999 that quarter to represent Texas Disposal Systems, a waste disposal firm that has resisted the city’s lobbying restrictions by angling for contracts outside of the bidding process.

Lobbyist and lawyer Jeffrey Howard said in November that the compensation issue “goes to the heart of the attorney-client relationship.” He said this week that he thought it would be fine to leave it undisclosed because the form specifically left room for an explanation for not providing it, and because the City Clerk accepted the forms without the information with no objection.

IN 2015: Austin officials to create new lobbying registration, reporting rules

After Lewis filed the ethics complaints, Howard sought a formal opinion from city attorneys on whether the city’s rule superseded State Bar of Texas confidentiality provisions. Austin’s law department told him the requirement fell within an exception to the bar rules, he said.

“So, with this new and different information, and a formal decision having now been made by the City, we felt there was a sufficient, reasonable basis to believe that disclosure might be required,” Howard said in an email.

In addition to filing full disclosures this month, most of the 17 who initially objected also corrected their reports from last fall to include the information.

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