The federal Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) has been around for a long time. It was significantly updated in the 1980’s during the Clinton Administration. Then in 2007, after several lobbyists, most famously Jack Abramoff, became notorious for excessive gifts and lobbying expenditures, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA). That update of LDA significantly increased potential civil fines and criminal sanctions for violation of Congressional ethics rules or failure to file proper lobbying reports.
Prior to HLOGA, offering a gift or travel in violation of Congressional ethics rules was not a violation of any federal statute unless there was a direct bribe or unless a gift was proven to be a quid pro quo for actions taken by a legislator or staff member. The excessive gifts offered by Abramoff were violations of Congressional ethics rules by those who accepted such gifts but the offeror was not violating any federal statute simply for offering such an excessive gift. Now under HLOGA, any registered lobbying entity must file semi-annual reports certifying that no employee of the registrant has offered any gift or travel in violation of Congressional gift rules. A knowing violation of this prohibition or false certification can be subject to stiff civil fines or criminal penalties.
Likewise, prior to the passage of HLOGA, there had been only rare instances where a registrant had been fined or brought to task for failure to file proper reports under LDA. That “sleeping dog” seems to be waking up and it has potential bite.
Just last week, the Justice Department filed a suit against a lobbying firm for its repeated failure to file proper LDA reports. In the civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the U.S. Attorney claimed that the lobbying firm had repeatedly and knowingly failed to file proper reports, even after numerous warning letters from the House and Senate reporting offices. Under the LDA, each violation of the Act can be subject to a fine of up to $200,000. The complaint of the U.S. Attorney cited 124 knowing violations of the quarterly reporting requirements and 41 knowing failures to correct the missing filings within 60 days. The maximum potential fine, according to the Court documents, could be as high as $33 million dollars. Clearly the Justice Department is SHOUTING to registered lobbyists “BEWARE OF DOG.” “Properly file your reports!” The sleeping LDA Dog may be about to bite!
Since 2010, the Justice Department has reached a settlement with three lobbying firms that had delinquent or insufficient LDA reports. Those settlements have been for as much as $80,000 each. In addition to the $33 million suit filed last week, Justice has at least two additional cases under serious review or in settlement discussions. The Justice Department is clearly ramping up its attention to the hundreds of referrals it gets from Congress for alleged violations of the LDA. The “sleeping dog” is beginning to bite.