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Lobbyists claim overreach by Galvin

Lawsuit challenges interpretation of disclosure law

BY: Matt Murphy


STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Prominent lobbyists have filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State William Galvin claiming the state’s chief lobbying enforcement officer overstepped his authority by trying to force registered lobbyists to disclose every public official with whom they’ve had communication over the past six months.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Suffolk County Superior Court, asks for a judge to declare Galvin’s action “invalid” and protect the plaintiffs from any action against them that Galvin might take for failure to comply with his interpretation of a 2009 lobbying reform law.

“We think it’s a huge overreach, overbroad reading of the law . . . ,” said Ann Lambert, a plaintiff in the case and legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Lambert said “clearly what the law was getting at was requiring the reporting of direct business associations with public officials.”

Other plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit are Robert Gibbons, president and CEO of AirtStrategies; Lael Chester, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice; Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts; Richard Lord, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts; and Susan Reid, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

The civil complaint was filed by attorneys Carl Valvo and Christian Scorzoni of Cosgrove, Eisenberg and Kiley, PC. It names Galvin and Marie Marra, supervisor of lobbyist registration, as defendants in the case.

“We don’t comment on ongoing legal or court matters,” said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Galvin, who was in Charlotte, N.C. Tuesday attending the Democratic National Convention.

The complaint centers around a section of the law that went into effect in January 2010 requiring registered lobbyists in Massachusetts to report twice a year on “all direct business associations with public officials.”

In letters sent to the plaintiffs and other lobbyists in July and August, Galvin’s office informed them that their reports needed to be corrected to reflect all communications with public officials over the past six months, according to the complaint.

Lambert said this was the first time she or any of the other plaintiffs had been informed of this requirement, despite having filed disclosure reports under the new law four times prior.

Reid, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said that in addition to being inconsistent with the law, Galvin’s new interpretation of the statute also paints a misleading portrait to the public of dealings on Beacon Hill.

“We think the language of the law is pretty clear and lobbyist division and secretary of state have distorted that meaning,” Reid told the News Service. “We’re also concerned about the implications. We find it deeply troubling that the lobbyist division wants CLF to declare that we have business relations with public officials when we don’t.”

Both Reid and Lambert said forcing lobbyists to disclose conversations with every public official with whom they’ve had contact misses what they say is the actual goal of the law: exposing true business relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers.

“If you pile on mounds and mounds of information, even if it could be constructed at this point, something that surely will be obscured will be the direct associations that the law was about,” Lambert said.

The 2009 law was born out of the Governor’s Task Force of Public Integrity appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2008 to review, among other things, the state’s lobbying laws in the wake of reports that former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi may have had business interests with lobbyists seeking contracts with the state.

DiMasi was convicted and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for steering a pair of software state contracts to Cognos Corp. in exchange for monthly kickbacks funneled through a law associate. One of DiMasi’s co-conspirators, lobbyist Richard Vitale, also provided DiMasi with an unusual low-interest third mortgage on his North End condominium.

Wilmot, a plaintiff in the suit against Galvin, served on the task force that recommended the business relationship disclosure, and said the intent was never to disclose typical interactions between lobbyists and public officials. She said the law sought to expose dealings where lobbyists and public officials might share a financial interest, or in cases where lobbyists might be paid to perform tasks such as tax returns.

Wilmot also called it “practically impossible” to ask lobbyists to retroactively piece together communications they have had with lawmakers or administration officials over the past six months.

“It puts me at risk and every other lobbyist represented by this of perjuring themselves, and that’s not a position I or anyone else should be put in,” Wilmot said.

Violations of the lobbying disclosure laws carry significant potential penalties, including criminal fines or imprisonment. According to the plaintiffs, Galvin also lacks the regulatory authority to change the reporting requirements without legislative approval.

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