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Watchdog wants stricter Cook County lobbying rules

Monday, May 19, 2014
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County’s chief watchdog wants to tighten up lobbying rules after finding that “rogue lobbyists” are ignoring requirements to register or report their activities.

People selling products to the government escape from all lobbying requirements under a “loophole” in the county lobbyist ordinance, concluded Inspector General Patrick Blanchard in a report released today.

“‘Rogue lobbyists’ deprive the people of Cook County (of) the critical information of who is attempting to influence legislative and/or administrative action and why they are doing so,” Blanchard wrote. The effect, he said, is to reduce annual $350 lobbyist registration payments and “deprive the people (of) transparency, accountability and fairness in government.”

Blanchard’s team compared lobbyist reports to sign-in logs at county government. They also interviewed county officials and employees. The office found 58 instances where lobbying activity went unreported during a 21-month period that ended last December. The unreported activities included lobbying by people who did not register, and by lobbyists who did not report all of their activities, the report states.

The number of unreported activities is probably low, because nearly 700 sign-in signatures were unreadable, and some lobbyists were able to ply their trade in ways that aren’t easily tracked. For example, lobbyists who enter county offices through a door behind the board room dais don’t have to sign in, and sometimes lobbyists simply lean over “the rail” to bend a commissioner’s ear during meetings.

Under current county code, anyone paid to influence government actions on behalf of someone else must register as a lobbyist with the county clerk’s office. Then they must report their activities twice a year to the clerk’s office, which posts the information online.

Blanchard recommended that the county code be changed to eliminate the exception for people seeking county business whose “lobbying activities are limited to occasional sales-related inquiries or solicitations.” He also recommended improving sign-in procedures, requiring lobbyists to wear credentials and penalizing lobbyists who fail to register or report with fines and 4-year ban on their lobbying. Currently, lobbyists who register late face daily fines and those who fail to register could be barred from county lobbying for three years.

Clerk David Orr, who in the early 1990s introduced lobbyist reporting requirements to county government, said he was open to new legislation requiring better sign-in procedures and was willing to consider some sort of credentialing and new punishments.

“It would be good if the commissioners revisited this,” Orr said. “We’ll work with them on that.”



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