by David Chapman
As of Tuesday, discussions between the City Ethics Commission and Office of General Counsel were ongoing about how to handle the issue of 10 area lobbyists not in compliance with new code requirements regarding disclosure of clients.
The most outspoken opponent against the new regulations is attorney Paul Harden, whose written reply to Ethics Officer Carla Miller’s letter was the main topic of a special Ethics Commission meeting last Friday.
After discussion, the Ethics Commission decided to draft and send another letter to Harden and other non-compliant lobbyists. The letter might also include an invitation for the lobbyists to attend the commission’s next meeting on April 28. What that will accomplish is yet to be seen.
“Depending on my schedule, I’d be happy to (attend),” said Harden. “But I’ve already got plenty of fights on my hands.”
Harden contends he sees only a changed “interpretation” of lobbyist code requirements — requirements he said he has fulfilled completely for the past 23 years.
Under the prior code, lobbyists could list their clients and issues as “various.” But under the new ethics code recently adopted by the City Council, lobbyists are required to name the clients they represent as well as the issue for which they are representing — all in the goal of a more transparent government, according to Miller and other ethics officials.
Harden maintains he currently complies with the new requirements, and that naming his clients could be a break of attorney-client confidentiality.
The current lobbyist registration list totals 62 lobbyist, with 10 still having “various” next to clients and issues, including: Mark Arnold, Martin Fiorentino, Bruce Fletcher, Maureen Jones, Richard Maguire, Owen McCuller, Charles Mills, George Ralston and Ellen Smith.
However, Miller told the Ethics Commission it was not known whether all the non-compliant lobbyists listed were still active.
Harden, though, is still active and contends his clients are not being hidden.
“It’s pretty clear who I represent,” he said. “I have no reason to believe I am not in compliance.”
The issue may have begun when the City Council was vetting the ethics ordinance last year. During readings before the Rules and Finance committees, council members removed language that specified attorneys could be acting as lobbyist, even if they are not registered, and had to follow the same laws.
The goal was to bring Jacksonville laws in line with the state’s, which requires detailed disclosure of lobbyists’ clients along with monetary compensation. At the time, attorneys for the Office of General Counsel advised that removing the language did not affect the intent of the law.
However, other local lobbyists who have complied with the new requirements, such as Lara Tanier of The Hipps Group, understand the need for the new process.
“We don’t have a problem with it,” said Tanier, who said the biggest hassle with registering was the sheer amount of paperwork involved. “Our clients know we had to do it.”
Tanier, a non-attorney lobbyist, said she can see an attorney’s potential issue regarding attorney-client privilege but said all lobbyists across the board should adhere to the same rules.
“Everybody has to do it,” said Tanier. “If one of us has to do it, then we all should have to do it.”
Enforcement of the new requirements against non-compliant lobbyists is one of the pressing issues the Ethics Commission is facing, but it has a supporter.
Contrary to reports, State Attorney Harry Shorstein said he considers the issue to be an extremely important one, especially given the sagging public support for government entities in recent years. Shorstein lauded the City’s choice of Miller as Ethics Officer and said she has his full support and noted that he has met with her several times.
Shorstein did say he had one key question on the issue, though, before the process could go any further.
“My only question is, ‘Is there a problem with the ordinance?’” said Shorstein.
He said he made that inquiry to General Council Rick Mullaney and Chief Deputy General Council Cindy Laquidara days ago, but has yet to hear back.
Currently, penalties for non-compliance include a $25 fine or 10 days in jail, and while Shorstein said those were relatively small, he worried public trust and transparency would be betrayed without proper enforcement.
One registered lobbyist who has made his clients transparent under the updated registration requirements is attorney Tom Ingram of Pappas Metcalf Jenks & Miller.
Ingram has a long list of clients and said that although the penalties weren’t bad, they were bad enough.
“Over the course of events that take place in the process, it’s well known who I represent,” he said, but added he had no problem registering. “$25 isn’t a big deal but the 10 days in jail is kind of scary.”