One way to cut through the din of constant political noise during an election is to look at the money flowing through the political system. Laws that require campaign and lobbying reports are meant to help the public learn about groups or people attempting to influence election outcomes through donations, or official decisions by spending money on elected officials once they’re in office.
Those laws are only worthwhile, though, when they are followed.
Take, for example, Albuquerque’s lobbying ordinance. It looks good on paper. Lobbyists are supposed to include on their registration statements the specific official action they are seeking to influence and to file financial reports or, in the absence of financial activity, file a letter stating as much.
But New Mexico In Depth has found an almost wholesale lack of compliance among registered lobbyists in Albuquerque. The reporting failure is due in part, it appears, to lack of education aimed at lobbyists about the rules. It’s also due to how the ordinance’s enforcement provision is interpreted: According to the city attorney’s office, a written, notarized complaint is the only way to trigger an inquiry, although one transparency champion reads the city’s ordinance as giving the city attorney’s office flexibility to pursue investigations even when there is no written complaint.
The result is less public information than the law requires involving lobbyists whose employers have had an interest in influencing proposals before city officials this year.
It also occurs during an election in which one registered Albuquerque lobbyist — local attorney Pat Rogers — and the manager of the company employing him — Jeff Garrett — are, independent of one another, accusing one mayoral candidate of ethical lapses and funding negative ads against him.
After being informed of the lack of compliance and what New Mexico In Depth learned about the process, Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison said the Albuquerque City Council should think about strengthening the ordinance after the election.
“A lot of this hasn’t been touched in 15 years. It’s time to update it,” Harrison said.
The law: Compliance confusion
The Albuquerque lobbyist registration and disclosure ordinance, passed in 2001, explicitly defines lobbying as “attempting to influence” a range of decisions by the city council, mayor or city officials.
One can see current and past registered lobbyists on the city’s website, with links to their registration forms. It’s a small group in 2017, just eleven as this article is published.
The small number of registered lobbyists in the state’s largest city, relative to 667 registered at the state level, may be due to the more targeted approach the city took when creating its lobbying ordinance.
The city rules exempt a wide swath of people who only occasionally contact a public official on behalf of the organization they work for to urge passage or non-passage of a particular measure or other type of official action. They also exempt anyone who testifies or comments in a public forum, or who is asked by a public agency to provide comments.
Instead, Albuquerque zeroed in on those who are paid specifically to lobby officials on behalf of someone else, or those for whom lobbying is a “substantial or regular” part of their job.
A review of the lobbyist registration forms and the physical file at the City Clerk’s Office point to non-compliance in at least a couple of respects.
The law requires lobbyists to include on their registration statements the specific official action they are seeking to influence, but none of the lobbyists have done that. Instead they write general goals, or their mission statement, or in the case of several, that their purpose is anything concerning their employer.
New Mexico In Depth found only one financial report in the physical file when there should be dozens or, in the absence of financial activity, a letter stating as much. Staff knew of no other file where reports would be kept, and did not appear to understand what reports New Mexico In Depth sought to review despite the rules and forms for complying being publicly available on the city’s website.
In a subsequent interview, City Clerk Natalie Howard said she didn’t know why registered lobbyists weren’t filing reports, and suggested New Mexico In Depth ask them.
Albuquerque requires the city clerk to “advise and seek to educate” lobbyists required to register and report under the ordinance, and to, on an annual basis, advise registered lobbyists and their employers of deadlines for registration.
Howard said she does that by pointing lobbyists to the city website where they can find the ordinance, some explanation about requirements, and all the forms they need.
Howard doesn’t enforce the ordinance. That’s the job of the city attorney. Nor does the city clerk do internal audits that would let the city attorney know whether registered lobbyists are in compliance.
“Some ordinances are very specific about what actions are taken,” Howard said. But in the case of the lobbyist ordinance, there is nothing that instructs the city clerk to do internal audits.
“It doesn’t state that’s my responsibility or falls under my scope,” said Howard about why her office doesn’t monitor reporting.
Assistant City Attorney Eric Locher told New Mexico In Depth that even though lack of reporting had now been brought to his attention, he would still not send letters to registered lobbyists.
“It states that there shall be a sworn complaint,” said Locher, pointing to language in the ordinance.
Harrison, of Common Cause, disagreed, pointing to a provision in the law that she said should trigger action by the city attorney if he or she has reason to believe there’s been a violation.
And Harrison said she believes Howard’s approach to advisement and education isn’t enough, because compliance with a web of local, state and federal ordinances is confusing for most people.
City staff should go above and beyond to make sure those who register with the city understand the requirements, she said.
“It’s on them (the lobbyist) to read the ordinance, but when you have local, state and federal laws it can get confusing,” Harrison said, suggesting that city officials create more educational materials for lobbyists, similar to an informational guide found on the state’s website.
“The law does not prevent people from doing more than is written in the statute,” she said.
Harrison said while the topic is “unsexy,” it’s important for lobbyists to register and disclose their financial transactions. That’s because while it may not be true in reality, she said, public perception tends to be that public officials listen more to lobbyists than their constituents.
“That’s why data and going above and beyond is so important,” she said. “It’s up to all of us to help rebuild some trust in our democracy. We all have a role and have to do it.”
Current registered lobbyists
Here’s a run-down of the very short list of 2017 registered lobbyists. None of the lobbyist state explicitly on their registration forms what official action they or their employer support or oppose, as required by the ordinance.
Nor have any of them, except for Vanessa Alarid, filed financial reports, or a letter required in the event they have no financial activity to report. New Mexico In Depth reached out to all of the others, who have not filed reports, to find out why. We received just one response, from Animal Protection Voters, whose staff account for seven out of 11 registered lobbyists.
Vanessa Alarid registered on Jan. 18 to represent Garrett Development Corp., and filed a final financial report on the same day. That report is not on the city website but is included in the physical file at the City Clerk’s Office. Alarid has been a registered lobbyist for Garrett at the state level since 2014. A state lobbying report she filed in October 2016 showed contributions she made on behalf of Garrett to New Mexicans for New Mexico, a political action committee formed to oppose a candidate for Bernalillo County Commission, Adrian Pedroza.
Al Park, a local attorney and former New Mexico state representative, registered on Feb. 16 as a lobbyist for Citelum DC, LLC, a company that won a contract to create a “lighting master plan” that would transition city street lights to LEDs. The City Council approved the performance contract in September. Presumably, Park represented Citelum before city officials. He has not responded to an email New Mexico In Depth sent to him regarding his lobbyist registration, specifically why he has not filed any reports, or a required letter in the absence of financial activity.
Pat Rogers, a local attorney, registered on Feb. 24 to represent Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, a company that hired Garrett Development Corp. to develop a vast west side land development project in Bernalillo County called Santolina. An interesting undercurrent is that Rogers and Jeff Garrett, of Garrett Development Corp., have featured prominently in the race for Albuquerque mayor, independent of one another.
Garrett dumped $30,000 into a measure finance committee — the city’s version of a political action committee — responsible for radio, television and billboards attacking state auditor and mayoral candidate Tim Keller. Rogers has filed two ethics complaints against Keller on behalf of Wayne Johnson, Bernalillo County commissioner and former mayoral candidate.
Garrett suggested in a statement that because the Santolina development lies mainly outside the city limits, he has little financial interest in who becomes the next mayor.
That Garrett has had a registered city lobbyist since early this year, however, raises questions of whether he has an interest in influencing the decisions or official actions of city officials.
It’s unclear what those might be, however. He has not responded to a New Mexico In Depth request for an interview, nor has Rogers. And Rogers did not state on his registration form what that subject is, just as other lobbyists have not.
The company had to jump through some hoops to move forward development plans for its Albuquerque property. They proposed an apartment complex in 2015 that was denied by the city’s Environmental Planning Commission, but when the decision was appealed to the City Council, it was approved in April 2016.
Rogers has publicly been acting as an attorney for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings recently at the state level. He submitted an application to the state Board of Finance on behalf of the company seeking a diversion of state tax revenue to help pay for the costs of developing part of the Santolina project. Last week, he also filed a notice to the state that a lawsuit may be filed alleging that Keller as state auditor has unfairly ordered an audit targeting the Santolina project. In addition, he’s defending the measure finance committee that Garrett dumped money into, against ethics complaints.
Art De La Cruz, former Bernalillo County commissioner, registered on Sept. 11 to represent the Pawn Shop Association. He has not responded to New Mexico In Depth’s question about why he hasn’t filed any financial reports. But following recent city council news reports, it is likely he is representing the Pawn Shop Association in its efforts to kill a bill that would require, among other things, thumb printing of anyone seeking to pawn an item in Albuquerque and a waiting period before those people could receive funds for their pawned items.
Animal Protection Voters is a nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization whose principal purpose is to lobby. All of the organization’s 2017 registered lobbyists are staff members of APV. Their executive director, Elizabeth Jennings, told New Mexico In Depth the lack of reporting is an oversight. She also said the organization routinely renews its registration every year to be on the safe side, although the group rarely has a need to lobby city officials in Albuquerque. This year the group registered in April.
This BBSNews article originally appeared on NMPolitics.net.