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Pennsylvania ethics officials crack down on lobbyists

| Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, 11:03 p.m.

The state is cracking down on groups that fail to disclose how, when and where money is spent on lobbyists to shape public policy by influencing state lawmakers and executive-level officials.

In separate but related moves, state Ethics Commission officials are ramping up enforcement against groups that fail to file mandated quarterly expense reports, and the state House has approved a measure to up the ante for non-compliance by lobbyists and the groups they represent by dramatically increasing penalties for not abiding by disclosure rules.

Thirty-one groups were cited for failing to file expense reports this year; fines and penalties total about $90,300, ethics records show. In 2014, the commission issued just 15 citations with penalties totaling nearly $44,000.

Officials say disclosure mandates are aimed at providing transparency when it comes to behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts.

The reports “enable the public to see what lobbyists are spending to influence legislation and government action and who they're spending it on,” said Rob Caruso, Ethics Commission executive director.

Lobbyists and the groups employing them — referred to as principals — must register with the Department of State every two years. Any principal with more than $2,500 in quarterly lobbying expenses has to file an expense report with the department within 30 days of the end of each quarter. When expenses are $2,500 or less, a statement to that effect must be filed.

Groups ranging from the Pittsburgh Opera and a statewide golf course association to builders' advocates and museums were cited this year, records show. Fines and penalties ranged from $500 to $5,200 for reports that were more than 100 days late.

“I think (people) put it off to the side and think they're going to get to it and they never do,” said Caruso. “We try to be fair with everyone.”

Some feel the penalties aren't in line with the violations.

“As a small nonprofit organization that regularly files $0 in quarterly lobbying expenses, we find this fine to be painful, heavy-handed, and threatening to organizations that do their best to comply with the law while working to positively and meaningfully impact the public,” said Aurora Sharrard, executive director of the Green Building Alliance, which focuses on the “greening” of the region's commercial building sector.

The Station Square-based group was fined $5,200 for being 104 days late in filing its report for the fourth quarter of 2014.

Caruso said groups have opportunities to avoid penalties.

Once the Department of State forwards the names of nonfilers to the Ethics Commission, the agency then sends two warning letters, Caruso said. After that, a penalty of up to $50 for each day a report is late, and a $250 fine to cover agency costs, can be assessed. The commission can levy a lower daily penalty if there are mitigating circumstances.

Kate McCaslin, president of the Keystone Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said her group's third-quarter report for 2014 was missed during a staff transition. The group paid $5,023 after being 111 days late in filing, records show.

“It was an oversight. It wasn't intentional. ... We should have gotten it in but it fell through the cracks in the transition period,” McCaslin said. “Honestly, if there are going to be rules, folks need to follow them, including us, but provided the commission applies those rules fairly and evenhandedly.”

In February, the Pittsburgh Opera told the Tribune-Review its second-quarter report “fell through the cracks” when the opera was changing development directors. Records show the opera was 77 days late in filing and paid $2,945 in penalties and costs to the commission.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, introduced a plan to hike the maximum penalty imposed from $50 per day to a tiered system of $50 for the first 10 days, $100 for each of the next 10 days, and $200 for each late day after 20 days.

The House approved the bill last month 200-0 and sent it to the Senate, where it is pending.

Cutler said the bill updates fees that haven't changed since the Lobbying Disclosure Act became law in 2006.

Under the proposed bill, Sharrard's and McCaslin's groups could have been fined close to $20,000.

McCaslin said she supports the idea because it would allow the state to punish habitual offenders.

“The House is sending a message: ‘We are serious about an open and transparent government,'” McCaslin said. “Frankly, I don't have an issue with it.”

Cutler said the bill — which was approved in previous legislative sessions but never made it to the governor's desk — is vital to keep the disclosures transparent.

“I've always firmly believed that if people don't believe in the process ... they won't believe in the products,” Cutler said. “I think we have to show that everything is appropriate, everything is accessible and everything is transparent.”

Kari Andren is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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