The Problem With D.C.’s Lobbyist Disclosure Forms: They Don’t Disclose Very Much!
In case you missed it, The Washington Post editorial page has posted a series of must-read emails between Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and would-be lottery businessman Warren Williams and his lobbying team.
The emails, some of which were cited in The Washington Times last year, raise all kinds of questions about Graham's behavior in the lotto deal and add even more evidence to the truism that when it comes to contracting with the District government, political concerns count for wayyy too much.
But leaving all that aside for a second, the emails also highlight another problem with District government: its lack of transparency in the lobbying process. Every six months, the District's Office of Campaign Finance makes lobbyists and companies file reports on which Distirct officials they lobbied, what they were lobbied on, and how much that lobbying cost. Sounds good in theory, right? The public can see who is influencing the city's elected officials, or at least trying to. But a look at the report filed by Williams' company: W2 Tech, suggests that we may not be getting anything close to the full picture.
According to the emails the Post published, two W2 Tech lobbyists, Crystal Wright and Jim Link, met with Graham on May 29, 2008 to discuss the lottery contract. (Link also mentioned in an email that he had a meeting schedule that same day with Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh.) Link and Graham then exchanged a few emails over the next couple of weeks following up on their meeting.
But if you go to the W2 Tech's lobbyist disclosure form filed on July 10th, 2008, there's no mention that these interactions took place. The form requires that W2 Tech identify "the official and title, if known, in the executive or legislative branch, with whom [W2 Tech] has had oral or written communication during the reporting period relating to lobbying activities, and the date that communication was made." But all W2 Tech reported was that on May 5, 2008, it communicated with 'Columbia, Council of the District."
Williams & Co. also didn't identify what they were lobbying about. Under the section where W2 Tech was supposed to identify "matter(s) by subject and formal designation on which the lobbyist/registrant expects to lobby," W2 Tech wrote: "Consulting Services." The word lottery doesn't even appear anywhere on the form. (By contrast, Intralot, the Greek-gaming giant that tried to team with W2 Tech and was also lobbying for the contract, wrote "D.C. Lottery" on its form, and identified the specific councilmembers it lobbied and when.)
And W2 Tech also indicates that it paid its lobbyists "$0" for their services, which LL has a difficult time believing is accurate.
Nobody involved with W2 Tech immediately returned LL's calls. (Incidentally: Link's company bio says he used to be a Republican fundraiser and that he worked for future Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney was a congressman from Wyoming; he's been lobbying Congress for internet gambling on behalf of Intralot since 2009, according to House and Senate records, which are much more detailed than the OCF records.)
Wesley Williams, a spokesman for the OCF, says his office is reviewing the emails but "no determination has been made as to how or if we will proceed on the matter."
But why is the OCF just now reviewing this matter? How was W2 Tech allowed to get away with writing "consulting services" on its form and not be challenged by OCF? How could it write "Columbia, Council of the District" when asked which officials it had lobbied and not be ordered by OCF to be more specific?
Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser says she's not done with her overhaul of city ethics laws. Let's hope a look at how good a job OCF is doing at keeping lobbyists honest is on her to-do list.
UPDATE (1/29/12): Warren Williams calls LL to say that his company never paid any outside firms for lobbying, only for public relations. He says he can't speak to any lobbying done by W2 Tech's partner, Intralot.