Feb. 7, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Common Filing Errors Obscure Lobby Reports

On its Web site, Florida Citrus Mutual, a cooperative association, boasts how it has successfully lobbied Congress to secure nearly a billion dollars in federal funding while protecting its farmers from international trade threats.

But on its lobbying disclosure forms submitted to Congress, it has not disclosed at least $6.2 million that it appears to have spent with five outside consulting firms, according to forms filed by those firms.

Instead, Florida Citrus Mutual checked boxes acknowledging only the minimum disclosure amounts of less than $5,000 or $10,000 per period — obscuring almost all of the group’s actual lobbying spending from its in-house reports.

“If our filings with the House and the Senate happen to be incomplete, we will immediately notify each body and rectify the situation in an expeditious fashion,” said Florida Citrus Mutual Executive Vice President and CEO Michael Sparks, who added that his group is “looking into the situation.”

Florida Citrus Mutual appears to have made the common mistake of reporting only its in-house expenses on its lobbying disclosure reports. But the Lobbying Disclosure Act requires that lobbying entities with in-house lobbying operations disclose all lobbying costs on their in-house filings, including money spent on outside firms, even though the outside firms must also separately disclose the revenue they receive from the clients.

Companies, unions and other groups that seem to have made a similar error have underreported at least $338 million worth of lobbying during the past 12 years, according to a CQ MoneyLine study.

Some of the 1,200 lobbying entities that have potentially misreported their spending include the Motion Picture Association of America, which seems to have omitted more than $2.8 million from its disclosures through 2008. From 1998 to 2004, Anheuser-Busch reported almost $1.4 million less on its in-house lobbying disclosure forms than its outside K Street firms disclosed for the company. Neither provided comment by press time.

Many of the lobbying entities that have misreported their in-house lobbying figures say they are planning to refile.

An employee with payday lender Cash America first said her company was “very familiar with what the rules are” even though it seemed the company neglected to disclose at least $360,000 that it paid to outside firms.

“I don’t think we misfile because the lobbying firms file their own lobbying reports. We file our own lobbying reports based on what we have internally,” said Rene Knox, who was listed as the company’s contact for its lobbying forms.

However, Knox later called back to say that her company did not file properly and would be amending its reports. “It is absolutely one of the most confusing areas that we deal with,” she said. “The rules are continuing to be rewritten and change.”

But government officials and lobbying watchdogs say the law is not murky.

“The law and the guidance are clear, and the burden is on those who file the reports to file them accurately,” said Beth Provenzano, deputy chief of staff for the Secretary of the Senate, who collects the lobbying disclosure forms.

Craig Holman, who specializes in lobbying rules and compliance for Public Citizen, said he would expect some lobbying entities, especially new ones, to make some mistakes. “But when you have companies that have been around for a while doing lobbying, they should be very clear on the guidelines and the requirements for disclosure,” he said.

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