Stu­dents take aim at legal loop­hole

Bill in Leg­is­la­ture would shed light on who lob­bies state for $1 bil­lion in busi­ness.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Me­lanie Ma­son

SACRA­MENTO — The three law stu­dents lin­gered anx­iously out­side a Capitol hear­ing room, wait­ing to learn the fate of an en­tire school year of work.

They had spon­sored a pro­posal to shed light on who lob­bies to sell the state more than $1 bil­lion in goods and ser­vices each year, and it had stalled, one vote short in its first com­mit­tee.

Then, as res­ig­na­tion set in, one as­sem­bly­man cast a late ‘aye,’ trans­form­ing de­jected shrugs and “we trieds” into high fives and fist pumps.

Their am­bi­tious plan to bring scru­tiny to a blind spot in gov­ern­ment in­flu­ence had sur­vived its first test, in April. A big­ger one is due this week on the As­sem­bly floor.

The bill’s aim is sim­ple: Des­ig­nate as lob­by­ing the act of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in hopes of in­flu­enc­ing how they spend tax­pay­ers’ mon-

ey on goods and ser­vices — and re­quire the lob­by­ists to pub­licly dis­close that ac­tiv­ity.

“When you lobby the Leg­is­la­ture, com­pa­nies have to re­port who they’re pay­ing and what they’re pay­ing to lobby” for, said one of the stu­dents, Rob Nash, 27, from Illi­nois. “This is in the same vein.”

But the mea­sure would cast sun­light into an opaque, and lu­cra­tive, cor­ner of the inf lu­ence world. And with that, even back­ers con­cede, come ob­sta­cles.

“I’ve told them we should call this the ‘in­vis­i­ble death bill,’” said Rex Fra­zier, the stu­dents’ in­struc­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of the Pa­cific’s McGe­orge School of Law in Sacra­mento. “There has to be an ex­pec­ta­tion that pow­er­ful lob­by­ists would be hes­i­tant about a bill like this.”

About 5,000 state pur­chas­ing con­tracts a year are worth more than $250,000 — the bill’s thresh­old for dis­clo­sure — ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Gen­eral Ser­vices, which over­sees pro­cure­ment. Eigh­teen other states and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­quire dis­clo­sure sim­i­lar to what the bill’s au­thors seek.

The state’s as­so­ci­a­tion of lob­by­ists opted not to take a po­si­tion on the mea­sure. But Fra­zier, a lob­by­ist him­self, as­sumes there are stealth ef­forts afoot to block the mea­sure.

“Th­ese lob­by­ists are very tal­ented,” he said. “They have many ways of be­ing heard with­out be­ing seen.”

They can dis­creetly per­suade com­mit­tee heads to qui­etly shelve leg­is­la­tion, for ex­am­ple, or inf lu­ence bill analy­ses churned out by pol­icy staff. Some firms that work on pro­cure­ment bids also lobby the Leg­is­la­ture and have deep re­la­tion­ships with law­mak­ers and em­ploy­ees there.

The trans­parency bill was born around three miles from the Capitol at the bu­colic McGe­orge cam­pus, where the grounds are dot­ted with red­wood trees and yel­low Adiron­dack lounge chairs.

In Fra­zier’s clinic, the stu­dents were asked to iden­tify a prob­lem in state law and find a way to solve it. The trio of third-year stu­dents — Nash; Alex Khan, 28, of Fair Oaks; and Robert Bin­ning, 29, from Auburn — hit on pro­cure­ment lob­by­ing.

“We wanted some­thing that was sub­stan­tial,” Khan said.

The stu­dents did re­search, drafted bill lan­guage, per­formed mock com­mit­tee hear­ings and shopped for a leg­is­la­tor to carry their pro­posal.

As­sem­bly­man Richard Gor­don (D-Menlo Park), a five-year vet­eran of the Leg­is­la­ture, be­came its of­fi­cial au­thor.

“When the stu­dents came to me and said, ‘Do you re­al­ize there is this loop­hole that al­lows folks to lobby rel­a­tive to con­tract­ing?’ I said you’ve got to be kid­ding me,” Gor­don said.

“The stu­dents of McGe­orge have done the public a huge ser­vice, be­cause they’ve raised an is­sue which I just think peo­ple haven’t paid at­ten­tion to, and like me, weren’t even aware” of, he added.

One prom­i­nent lob­by­ing firm says on its web­site that Cal­i­for­nia spends bil­lions each year on goods and ser­vices, “mak­ing it a mar­ket ripe with op­por­tu­nity.”

The firm, Capitol Ad­vo­cacy, touts its abil­ity to nav­i­gate “com­plex pro­cure­ment rules and poli­cies, the state’s bud­get sit­u­a­tion and the nu­ances of pol­i­tics in the over­all process.”

It ad­ver­tises a range of ser­vices such as alert­ing clients of po­ten­tial con­tracts and “strength­en­ing re­la­tion­ships with key state of­fi­cials.”

John La­timer, founder of the firm, did not re­spond to calls for com­ment about the bill. Nor did sev­eral other top-tier lob­by­ing firms that advertise pro­cure­ment ser­vices on their web­sites.

The pending leg­is­la­tion has no for­mal op­po­si­tion. Gary Winuk, an elec­tion law at­tor­ney and for­mer chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the state po­lit­i­cal ethics agency, is bullish on its prospects.

“Our bill keeps mov­ing,” said Winuk, who is ad­vis­ing Nash, Khan and Bin­ning.

But po­ten­tial road­blocks loom, aside from any stealth cam­paign against the bill. For ex­am­ple, the mea­sure would amend the Po­lit­i­cal Re­form Act, which re­quires a two-thirds vote — and there­fore some Repub­li­can sup­port. No GOP mem­ber has voted for the bill in com­mit­tee.

And at least one Demo­crat has balked: As­sem­bly­man Se­bas­tian Ri­d­ley-Thomas (D-Los An­ge­les) voted no, ob­ject­ing that the mea­sure would harm mi­nor­ity con­tract­ing, though he did not ex­plain how.

The bill has been tweaked in a bid to ex­empt com­pa­nies’ sales em­ploy­ees from hav­ing to reg­is­ter as lob­by­ists. It also was amended to es­tab­lish the $250,000 base­line.

Mean­while, Khan, Bin­ning and Nash have gone from di­sheveled — in class, Khan said, he wore “prac­ti­cally pa­ja­mas” — to dap­per, much like the lob­by­ists who roam the Capitol halls.

They’ve picked up other Capitol habits, too, such as strat­egy ses­sions at KBAR, a popular wa­ter­ing hole for lob­by­ists and leg­isla­tive staffers.

And af­ter grad­u­at­ing last month, Khan is set to be­come a fel­low in the state Se­nate. Bin­ning will work in the leg­isla­tive coun­sel’s of­fice, which drafts bills. Nash is seek­ing a leg­isla­tive job.

First, though, comes in­ten­sive study for the state bar exam, which means the trio must peel away from their bill, AB 1200, just as the ac­tion heats up.

“It’s like you raise your kid, and you hope you raised it right,” Nash said.

Bin­ning con­curred: “It’s our baby.”

Peter DaSilva For The Times

LAW STU­DENTS Robert Nash, left, Robert Bin­ning and Alexander Khan are propos­ing a ma­jor change to the state’s lob­by­ing dis­clo­sure laws.

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