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Government Ethics

Justice Department cuts back monitoring of lobbying industry

The number of Justice Department staffers investigating whether lobbyists and lobbying firms are skirting federal disclosure laws is shrinking.

In 2016, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia employed six part-time attorneys and one full-time paralegal to review and enforce compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act. But the LDA compliance office staff dwindled over the next two years, closing 2018 with three people: one part-time attorney and two paralegals — one full-time, one part-time. The office also has personnel "available as needed," according to a March report by the Government Accountability Office.

The staffing decline may help explain a slew of unresolved complaints under review: From 2009 to 2018, the House and the Senate referred 3,800 cases to the LDA compliance office regarding a lobbyist or firm that had failed to comply with federal reporting requirements. About 59 percent of those 3,800 referrals are still "pending," according to the GAO report.

The staffing decline also corresponds with a dip in newly opened cases against so-called "chronic offenders." These investigations occasionally result in hefty fines against noncomplying firms. At least two new cases were opened in each of the three years preceding 2017, when staffing levels first dipped, according to The Firewall's review of GAO reports:

  • In 2014, officials opened two cases, levying one $30,000 fine against Alan Mauk & Alan Mauk Associates.
  • In 2015, the division investigated six cases, one of which resulted in a record $125,000 fine against Carmen Group.
  • In 2016, the DOJ opened four cases.

The office did not report any new chronic offender cases opened in 2017 or 2018.

"The GAO report is striking in that it reflects a continuing low-level enforcement activity of the LDA," Robert Kelner, a partner at the lobbying firm Covington & Burling, told Bloomberg Government.

The House Democrats' political overhaul bill, HR 1, proposes more oversight of the lobbying industry, such as giving increased enforcement power to the Office of Government Ethics and putting in stricter lobbying registration requirements. The bill moved through the House on a party-line vote but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear it's not going anywhere in his chamber.

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