After correcting four years of compensation reports for one of the entities she represents, Florida's top gun lobbyist Marion Hammer has been cleared of wrongdoing by the Florida Senate.
Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, had filed the complaint against Hammer, accusing her of violating Senate lobbying rules for failing to report her compensation for more than a decade.
Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, forwarded the complaint to Audrey Moore, general counsel for the Office of Legislative Services, which oversees lobbyist registration.
In a letter released Friday, Moore said that Hammer was directed to amend lobbyist registration documents for the prior four years — 2016-2019 — to reflect she was employed by the lobbying firm Unified Sportsmen of Florida to represent the National Rifle Association before the Florida Legislature.
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“It is clear that the nature of the business relationship between the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, is such that you are now, and have been, required by the joint rules of the Florida Legislature” and state law “to associate a lobbying firm on your lobbyist registration,” Moore wrote to Hammer in a letter dated Friday.
In a prepared statement released to the media on Friday, Thurston accused Republican Senate leaders of having a “willingness to abandon” the chamber’s rules, saying the actions concerning Hammer “show the power of the National Rifle Association in the Florida Legislature.”
“It is not a pretty picture,” he added. "The report issued today serves as a bitter reminder of the powerful grip Ms. Hammer and the NRA continue to maintain over the Republican-led Florida legislature."
Hammer, a former president of the national gun-rights organization, said in a statement she was “pleased that this matter has been concluded,” but not in how the case was publicly handled.
“I have been a registered lobbyist since 1974,” Hammer said in a statement. “That is not and never has been a secret. I have never told anyone that I was not a lobbyist.”
Hammer added that, when lobbyists were first required to begin filing compensation reports, she sought out advice from the Senate’s general counsel on whether she needed to make any changes to the reports she had submitted for more than three decades.
“I was told that I did not have any additional filing requirements as a lobbyist. Thus, in good faith I relied upon that advice,” Hammer continued. “As the filings are a non-issue to me, I would have done so all along had I been so informed. However, I am less than happy that the officials handling and commenting on these matters did not highlight the important point that I did not do anything wrong except rely on the advice of counsel."
Friday's closing of the inquiry was the culmination of months of talks that resulted in Hammer updating the reports, going back to 2016. Moore’s letter was released with a separate memo by Benacquisto announcing the “matter closed.”
“I have been advised both you and (United Sportsmen of Florida) have complied with these directives,” Benacquisto wrote. “As a result, I see no reason to take further action at this time.”
In a statement to the media, Senate President Bill Galvano noted that Hammer receives her compensation for lobbying from the Unified Sportsmen of Florida as an “employee,” which makes her “an employee lobbyist not a ‘lobbying firm’ or a ‘contract lobbyist’ required in her individual capacity to file compensation reports.”
But, Galvano added, the investigation also found that United Sportsmen of Florida “derives compensation from the National Rifle Association for lobbying, and is therefore a lobbying firm required under Florida law to file lobbyist compensation reports.”
The Senate president also noted that, since Hammer corrected her lobbyist registration information and directed USF to file the compensation reports within the 30-day window set by Moore, no fines or sanctions would be issues.
“I have been advised by the Office of Legislative Services that these directives have been complied with; therefore, I consider this matter closed,” Galvano, R-Bradenton added.
Moore’s Aug. 23 report shows that the NRA began paying USF $120,000 a year in 2000, an amount that steadily increased until 2010, when the payments reached $216,000. That payment remained the same until this year, when it was reported that USF received $36,000. The figures were taken from minutes of an NRA board meeting in April, according to the report.
Between 2005 and 2018, Hammer also received annual payments of between $122,000 and $270,000 from the NRA, the reports show.
Thurston and Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, in May requested legislative probes into whether Hammer violated state law by failing to disclose payments from the National Rifle Association.
"If it was any other lobbyist the results would have been different. We remain committed to ethics and transparency, and will not shy away from holding people like Marion Hammer accountable,” Eskamani said in a statement.
The complaint was based upon reports by the Florida Bulldog, which stated Hammer claimed not to be a lobbyist for the NRA and failed to disclose payments since at least 2007.
Thurston accused the Senate of bypassing its own rules by having the Office of Legislative Services, rather than Benacquisto's committee, conduct the probe into Hammer.
“Had the Rules Committee followed this mandatory procedure, the people of Florida would have witnessed a much more transparent process, allowing both Republicans and Democrats to probe the facts, bring forward the evidence, and arrive at the appropriate conclusion,” Thurston said in a press release. “Short-circuiting that obligation leaves in high doubt the findings that we are presented with today.”
— Jim Turner