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D.C. Lobbying Disclosures Of Limited Use To Watchdogs

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It's difficult to track the activities of lobbyists at the Wilson Building in real-time.
Larry Miller: http://www.flickr.com/photos/drmillerlg/1246397248/
It's difficult to track the activities of lobbyists at the Wilson Building in real-time.

The District is out with its lobbying report for the year, the required lists detailing which lobbyists met with which politicians. From fights over Pepco and Walmart expansion to speed cameras and sports teams, lobbyists had a busy first of half of 2012. They raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and visited with lawmakers and staff nearly 1,900 times, according to the report.

Greasing the wheels

The records can be great at showing some of the arm-twisting that went on behind the scenes at the Wilson Building.

One example is the proposal to place huge, high-definition billboards outside the Verizon Center. Records show a furious lobbying effort last month by a company run by Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Verizon Center as well as the Wizards and Capitals. The company's lobbyists met with lawmakers and staff 65 times last month, and apparently it paid off. Emergency legislation passing 12-0 to ensuring these revenue-producing billboards will be up by the fall, when the teams begin their seasons.

Among the highlights from the report: Council member Yvette Alexander had the most lobbied office by far, with more than 160 visits over the first half of the year. The offices of members Jack Evans and Mary Cheh finished second and third.

Among the lowlights: the sloppy bookkeeping by lobbyists and the city's Office of Campaign Finance — one entry from a labor union, for example, dated by Feb. 3, shows the group met with "BLAH-BLAH."

Disclosures don't shed much light

But in terms of actual usefulness for members of the public and the media, D.C.'s lobbying records are more like autopsy reports than check-ups. That's because the District government releases its lobbying reports only twice a year, and often right around the time the busy legislative season is wrapping up.

"What happens is you don't get the detailed information until often after a vote or after they are in recess when it's too late to do anything about it," says Lisa Rosenberg, with the government watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation. She says the District could do much better when it comes to lobbying transparency.

Infrequent lobbying reports makes it nearly impossible for voters and journalists to make connections between lobbying and campaign contributions and fundraising activities.

Take registered lobbyist David Wilmot. Wilmot has served as a personal lawyer for one council member and served as the campaign finance chairperson for another council member. Records show Wilmot, who was paid by Walmart, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T and other companies, met with lawmakers and staff more than 150 times this year.

"And again, if only you have only semi-annual reports you can't connect all of those dots and find out who is really pulling those influence levels," says Rosenberg.

So far, the city has no plans to update its disclosure requirements.

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