Transparency, Bigger Fines Sought In New Lobbying Laws

Legislation introduced to both the Rhode Island state House of Representatives and the state Senate would rework lobbying in the Ocean State. The new legislation, called the Rhode Island Lobbying Reform Act, would broaden the definition of lobbying, merge two lobbyist registers, require disclosure of funds and empower the secretary of state to issue subpoenas in the conduct of investigations into violations.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea believes the act “will strengthen, clarify and increase the transparency of Rhode Island’s lobbying laws,” according to a statement. The introduction of the act comes after the state dropped complaints that an attorney and a board member for gaming company 38 Studios failed to disclose their lobbying efforts. Gorbea retained former U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente to review the cases.

“After a careful review of both matters, we concluded that both orders were likely to be overturned by the Superior Court, due to multiple procedural deficiencies in the existing lobbying statutes. And even if the orders were upheld, the maximum penalties prescribed by the statutes ($2,000) are trivial,” Corrente said. “It made little sense to spend taxpayer dollars on protracted litigation that was unlikely to accomplish any meaningful result.”

The new act would increase the non-disclosure penalties to $5,000. The definition of lobbying would shift from influencing legislation to influencing the lawmakers themselves. The act would give the secretary of state the power to issue subpoenas related investigations. It would also merge two lobbyist registries into one. Currently, lobbyists who engage in limited activity—no more than twice during a legislation session—are on a separate registry from more active lobbyists.

The act calls for quarterly lobbying reports that would include the lobbyist’s compensation, who paid him, expenditures and campaign contributions, and an annual ethics report detailing to which lawmakers a lobbyist gave funds. “Rhode Island needs to be known nationally as a place that values transparency and effective government,” Gorbea said in the statement.

The new act would take effect January 1, 2016. The House’s version of the act can be read here.