GAO Audit: Lobbyists Are Obeying Disclosure Laws

Posted September 30, 2008 at 6:47pm

After months of anxious preparation for the government’s first audit of lobbyists’ disclosure filings, a Government Accountability Office report on the subject was decidedly uneventful.

The GAO report, released on Tuesday, concluded that lobbyists could provide accurate supporting information for at least 95 percent of the 17,801 reports filed in the first quarter of 2008. Those figures were based on a random sampling of 100 clients chosen from the first-quarter reports.

“Neither the Act nor lobbying guidance specifies any standards or requirements for lobbyists to maintain records or documentation to support information disclosed in their reports,” the report notes. “Nonetheless, lobbyists were able to provide written or oral support for all required elements of the individual reports we examined.”

The report was required as part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, the first major change to federal lobbying disclosure law since 1995. It was the first time the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, has been statutorily required to review lobbying disclosure records.

Under the statute, audit results of the first-quarter 2008 lobbying reports were due by Sept. 30. Following Tuesday’s report, the GAO will start reviewing quarterly lobbying disclosure and LD-203 filings on an annual basis, reporting to Congress by April 1.

The LD-203 offers more detailed reports on individual lobbyists, including their campaign contributions.

Firms audited include K Street stalwarts Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Cornerstone Government Affairs, and the PMA Group.

The agency asked each lobbyist it sampled to provide information regarding eight parts of their report, including the amount of money spent or received for lobbying activities, specific issues that were lobbied, which chamber of Congress or federal agency was contacted, individuals who acted as lobbyists for clients listed, foreign entities with interest in the clients, the name of individuals no longer lobbying on behalf of the client, and the name of any member coalitions or associations connected with the client.

While the GAO said that lobbyists provided support for all required elements of individual reports, the level of documentation varied. The GAO estimated that lobbyists had written documentation to back up expenses or support income for 91 percent of the reports. However, lobbyists had a harder time backing up the issues they specifically lobbied, with just 58 percent of reports backed up by documentation. Just 47 percent of reports audited could provide backup documentation for which chamber of Congress or federal agency was lobbied.

The report also found that some firms over-report the amount of time spent on lobbying activities by lobbyists.

“Those situations were fairly minimal,” said George Stalcup, GAO director of strategic issues. “It largely was trying to make sure they didn’t underreport, an overabundance of caution.”

The agency did not refer any matters to the Department of Justice.

The agency’s approach drew some criticism from watchdog activists that had expected the GAO to scrutinize more thoroughly whether firms were accurately reporting their information to Congress.

“I was expecting a more formal audit,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

Ethics lawyers had also anticipated more scrutiny of lobbyists’ records along the lines of an Internal Revenue Service audit.

“The audits themselves at this point have not been particularly searching or deep,” said Robert Kelner, an ethics lawyer with Covington & Burling. “I think GAO is probably still getting a handle of how to do an audit of this kind.”

Perkins Coie’s Marc Elias agreed.

“I thought the auditors were in an information gathering mode as much as anything else,” Elias said. “They were trying to gather data on how various entities go about preparing their lobbying disclosure act reports and complying with the law.”

Yet GAO officials say they went as far as they could in the audits because the law does not require lobbyists to keep records.

“There are challenges we have in this area,” said Bill Reinsberg, GAO assistant director of strategic issues. “We don’t have access to other information that might be available.”

For instance, the GAO did not contact the clients of lobby shops to confirm the accuracy of the filings.

The GAO also asked lobbyists about the challenges of complying with the law. While “a number” of lobbyists felt existing guidance was sufficient, others believed more clarification on how to report certain information about their lobbying activity was needed, according to the report.

The agency recommended that the U.S. district attorney “develop a structured approach” in order to target lobbyists who continually fail to comply with the lobbying law.

It is unclear whether the GAO will continue to use an audit sample based just on clients, not firms. Agency officials will meet Wednesday to determine how it will proceed with the next round of audits.

“We anticipate that we will continue to do random sampling,” Stalcup said.