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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lobbying Disclosure Forms Don't Tell Full Story

Lobbying Disclosure Forms Don't Tell Full Story
 

That activity in eight states led to media coverage, a plus for the group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or ACCCE. "Likely members of Congress would have seen those stories and read those stories and seen there was support for coal," said Lisa Camooso Miller, an ACCCE spokeswoman. The effort came just before the Senate was due to return from its August break and consider climate legislation that is likely to have a profound effect on coal.

But none of the money ACCCE spent on that August effort is reflected in the lobbying report it filed with Congress, detailing spending in July, August and September. The report also fails to capture what ACCCE spent on television advertisements featuring "real people" talking about the importance of coal as a source of low-cost electricity in their lives.

The $302,700 that ACCCE told Congress it spent on lobbying in the third quarter does not include the summer spending, the group said, because by law it is not obligated to disclose it. Congress allows groups that file lobbying reports to choose from three formats for totaling their spending. One is a narrower disclosure as defined by Congress. The other two, defined by the Internal Revenue Service, use a far broader definition for lobbying.

ACCCE -- along with groups that include the American Petroleum Institute, the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association -- uses the format that excludes grass-roots activity, leaves out most advertising spending and does not show money spent on state and local lobbying.

ACCCE and the other trade groups say they are following the law and that they fully reveal all lobbying expenses to the IRS.

While grass-roots activities "might be influencing Congress," said Ronald Jacobs, an attorney with Venable LLP who works for ACCCE, "on the other hand, it's not captured in the definition of lobbying disclosures, so it's not reported."

But government watchdogs find the uneven disclosure in filing to Congress troubling, especially as more groups use grass-roots work, advertising and community-based efforts to sway lawmakers' votes.

"The stakes are too high," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen. "On every major issue, you see sophisticated efforts to sway the debate one way or another. The outside D.C. grass-roots activity, that sometimes is having the most influence on swinging the public debate."

"Everything hinges on the impact that these grass-roots or AstroTurf campaigns have," Slocum added, "so it's really significant."

Because Congress allows different filing methods, Slocum said it is impossible to compare companies and trade groups and see which ones carry the biggest lobbying wallets. (Public Citizen, which does some lobbying, files under the same method as ACCCE and those others. In the third quarter, it reported $50,000 in lobbying. Slocum said the group does not do state lobbying and does very little grass-roots activity.)

ACCCE reports lobbying as it is required under the federal law as written by Congress, spokeswoman Miller said.

"We didn't write the law," Miller said. "Certainly, the IRS has defined it one way and the Lobbying Disclosure Act [passed by Congress] defines it another."

"We work every day to ensure that we comply with the rules as they are written," Miller added.

Concerns about how lobbying expenditures are reported comes as the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming investigates whether ACCCE failed to properly disclose all of its lobbying spending.

Committee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked the trade group whether its lobbying reports should include money paid to the Hawthorn Group, a public relations firm, according to a document viewed by E&E. ACCCE paid the Hawthorn Group, among other things, to coordinate an effort to stop the House climate bill from passing. The committee already is investigating ACCCE for its ties to a subcontractor that in June sent forged letters to House members urging them to vote against climate legislation.

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Rodrigo González Fernández
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