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Lobbyists often skirt the rules but are rarely punished in Hillsborough County

Hillsborough County Center at 601 E Kennedy Blvd. to illustrate the seat of power in the county for a story about how lobbyists and government officials have long ignored Hillsborough's rules governing lobbying, Thursday, January 14, 2016 [Luis Santana | Times]
Published Jan. 17, 2016

TAMPA — Lobbyists in Hillsborough County did not properly register more than one-third of their meetings with the county staff and elected officials last year.

Though it's a blatant violation of the county's lobbying ordinance, it's a pattern that has gone on for years, the result of a lax, self-policed system where lobbyists can come and go from the County Center and face no punishment for failing to meet minimum disclosure requirements.

And here's what it has led to: The fourth most lobbied person in the county in 2015 was "Incomplete."

Under the county ordinance, lobbyists must register their name, who they met with, what they talked about and who they represent.

In 2015, 46 lobbyists registered 140 meetings with county employees and elected officials. Fifty times at least one required field was left blank, for a total of 76 blank fields, according to lobbying records maintained by the Clerk of the Circuit Court.

Ten times, a lobbyist wrote in his or her name and almost nothing else. Most often, they didn't write what they were lobbying about.

On several occasions, a lobbyist didn't even fill in his or her name. In November 2014, for example, an unnamed lobbyist from "WTS" met with Commissioner Al Higginbotham about "transportation."

The lobbying registry is the public's only window into who is trying to influence government. And despite mechanisms for the County Attorney's office to punish violators, action is rarely, if ever, taken.

"There was no motivation for anyone to look at it because there was no enforcement," Higginbotham said of the lobbying registry. "There was no buy-in from folks in the County Center until we had issues that arose here."

Commissioners on Thursday are expected to vote on a revamped lobbying ordinance. The new rules were sparked by accusations last year that influential public relations consultant Beth Leytham helped steer a $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract toward her client, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The engineering firm then paid Leytham as a subcontractor.

Leytham maintained that she was not a lobbyist, in part because she communicated with commissioners and other officials via text message and email. The lobbying ordinance, last updated in 2007, exempts electronic communications from its definition of lobbying tactics.

The proposed changes to be voted on this week would close that loophole. It would also bar registered lobbyists from sending messages to commissioners' private devices.

The ordinance also seeks to beef up enforcement and penalties for violating the rules. For the first time, a lobbyist could be suspended for repeated violations. It puts the County Attorney's office in charge of "the maintenance of lobbyist registrations, the investigation of alleged violations and the enforcement of any penalties."

But the County Attorney's office was already tasked with enforcing the existing lobbying ordinance. In recent years, it has taken no action against lobbyists.

Each year, the Clerk of the Circuit Court sends the County Attorney a detailed list of every lobbyist that didn't properly register. In 2014, the office itemized 54 lobbyist meetings with incomplete registrations. Combined, 95 fields were left blank.

Despite this, the County Attorney's office hasn't used the information to go after those lobbyists. A first violation is supposed to be a warning from the County Attorney's office, followed by a $500 fine if the person is caught again.

Part of the problem, the office said, was an arcane bookkeeping system, where lobbyists registered using pen and carbon paper.

"The process wasn't good enough, it wasn't clear," said county general counsel Mary Helen Farris. "And that's what we're correcting now."

If commissioners approve the new lobbying ordinance, the County Attorney's office hopes to have a new electronic system in place within 90 days for lobbyists to check in on a computer before meeting with commissioners or the county staff. Not only will it track meetings in real time, it will block anyone from submitting an incomplete form.

Still, the onus will be on the lobbyist to record their meeting. Commissioners, and even others in the industry, are acutely aware that lobbyists sometimes fail to report off-site meetings and lunches with county officials, as they're supposed to do.

"There's others who don't do anything," said Todd Pressman, a government affairs specialist who reported lobbying commissioners for several clients the last couple of years.

A couple of times, Pressman didn't list what he was meeting about, but he said, "I always make an effort to do it the best I can."

Will the new rules fix all the flaws?

Said Higginbotham: "This is still going to be in great part the honor system."

Times staff writer Anthony Cormier contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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