Lobbying of county officials decreases
Monday, August 13, 2012
by Josh Weinhold
SPRINGFIELD — Contact between lobbyists and Cook County officials this year fell to its lowest point since online tracking of interactions began in early 2010, a report from Cook County Clerk David Orr's office says.
The 211 active lobbyists in Cook County reported 540 contacts with 78 officials between January and June, Orr's report says.
The total represents a slight decrease from the 560 contacts reported in the final six months of 2011 and a significant drop from the high of 700 contacts reported from July to December 2010.
Orr, who pushed for the sunshine ordinance that required online reporting of lobbyist activity, said a struggling economy could be to blame for the drop.
Many companies retain lobbyists to work only on issues or contracts as they arise, he said.
"If there's not a lot that comes up related to their business, then they don't need to lobby as much or pay as much," Orr said.
Lobbyists must report each contact made with an official, including phone calls, meetings, e-mails, letters, text messages and events.
Lawyer-lobbyist Gerardo J. Reyes said he reduced the amount of time he spent working on Cook County issues in recent years. He reported $42,000 in compensation and eight contacts made for two clients in the first half of 2012.
As scrutiny of lobbyist interactions with Cook County and city of Chicago officials increased, he said, politicians proved less willing to meet. So he shifted his focus toward the state legislature, he said, because that seemed more financially viable.
"You couldn't get anything done in the city, even though you were doing things ethically and legitimately," Reyes said. "Every time you made a phone call or requested a meeting, there was a certain recoil from officials."
Chicago requires lobbyists to report their activities, as well, though it only recently began developing an online system. Lobbyists must now also report to the city on a quarterly basis, instead of semi-annually.
Orr's report also says earnings for county lobbyists increased this year, despite the drop in contacts.
Lobbyists reported receiving $1.15 million in compensation for their Cook County efforts, up from the $824,000 in earnings reported over the first six months of 2011.
Brian Gladstein, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that increase concerns him. As public budgets tighten, he said, he finds it troubling that companies continue to spend so much to influence issues.
He said he hopes other areas of government follow Cook County's lead — especially at the state level, which doesn't require lobbyists to report interactions with officials.
"We need to have this type of transparency," Gladstein said. "The county is doing well. The city, we'll see. And the state is struggling."
Orr said displaying lobbyist reports online offers the public an idea of who interacts with officials, but not a perfectly clear picture.
The law requires lobbyists to report contacts within six months, preventing the public from knowing about interactions soon after they happen, he said.
"It's great we're getting this information," Orr said, "but there are other ways we could try and capture more information."
Lawyer-lobbyist John T. O'Connell primarily works at the Capitol, but sometimes deals with the county, including one contact this year.
O'Connell said he sees the reports required by Cook County playing an important role in improving accountability.
"It's a lot of extra detail work, but in this day and age, it's part of the process for transparency," he said. "They have to do that."