Lobbying laws mostly depend on honor system

By Patrick Howe

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- When baseball stadium supporter David Hoch challenged whether the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe properly reported how much it spent battling plans for a state casino at Canterbury Park, the tribe's lobbyist was quick to respond, acknowledging the tribe failed to disclose nearly $180,000 it spent during this year's legislative session.

But what the tribe's lobbyist called a simple oversight, Hoch and government watchdogs say is a symptom of a larger problem: In Minnesota there's little chance lobbyists will get caught if they ignore state reporting laws, and little chance they'll get punished if they do.

"It's widely ignored," said Hoch, who was disappointed the tribe's lobbyist was only told to refile his report. "It's blatantly flouted and blatantly ignored."


Indeed, despite requirements that they list their spending on everything from stamps to sodas, each year roughly a third of all registered lobbyists report not spending a penny during their work at the Capitol.

Some lobbyists say it's a hard law to follow.

"There are technical violations that happen all the time," said Christopher Sande, a lobbyist and partner in the law firm that represents the Mille Lacs tribe. He defended tribe lobbyist Theodore Grindal in the board's inquiry, saying that Grindal wasn't aware when he filed the report that the tribe had sponsored a media campaign designed to fight plans to bring a state-owned casino to Canterbury Park race track.

"It is extremely technical -- I would use the word pedantic -- to try to adhere to that statute," Sande said. He praised the campaign board's ruling as proof the law is imposed reasonably.

Like many of its kind around the nation, Minnesota's lobbyist reporting laws were sharpened in the years following Watergate to give the public a better idea of how lobbyists wield their power and influence.

A primary lobbyist for any group is required three times per year to disclose how much they spend on postage, telephone calls, entertainment, food and travel or to prepare publications or make media buys. They don't have to report their own salaries.

Based on those reports, the campaign board found about $8.33 million in total spending last year.

But early this year, when the Campaign Finance Board asked the companies and organizations that hire lobbyists to tell in greater detail than ever before how much they spent to influence government, it arrived at a figure of about $39 million spent on lobbying for the same year.


Presumably, the $31 million difference is largely in the salaries of the state's 1,290 registered lobbyists, but state officials say they have no way of knowing for sure.

Jeanne Olson, director of the campaign board, said her office relies on lobbyists to report their spending accurately, and investigates only when a member of the public files a complaint.

"The board, with its eight staff members, could not possibly look for errors of omission," said Olson. "Errors of omission are almost always identified by members of the public."

The law allows any lobbyist to correct a report within 10 days of making a mistake once it's brought to his or her attention, and holds out the prospect of a gross misdemeanor citation with a $3,000 civil penalty only for those who are proven to "knowingly" omit information.

"Minnesota's system is to a large extent paper compliance," said Hamline University professor David Schultz, an expert on campaign finance laws. "The board has almost no ability to go out there and do auditing, to second-guess or to offer serious sanctions. And that's not an accident. The lobbyists have fought these laws for years."

Bob Hentges is a sort of lobbyist for lobbyists, representing the Minnesota Government Relations Council. He said Minnesota's law is a good one.

While state lobbyists are aware that the board mostly relies on citizens to police the reports, Hentges believes his colleagues take them seriously.

"Even if you were tempted, I can't think of anybody, with the threat of getting your name in the newspaper or a potential civil penalty, who wouldn't comply," he said.

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