Who Is Paying The Lobbyists? Who Knows?
One-time uber-lobbyist Don Beason won't be paying a five- or six-figure fine after all. Beason, once rated the most influential lobbyist in Raleigh, has been out of the lobbying game for several years now. He quit after it was revealed that he provided a $500,000 loan to former House Speaker Jim Black.
But Secretary of State Elaine Marshall had been after Beason.
Marshall's office is responsible for regulating lobbyists. It alleged that a few months before Beason left the profession that he hid the source of some lobbying payments.
According to Marshall's office, a New Jersey pipefitting company received money from a handful of other companies and a trade association, which was funneled to Beason to try to weaken or overturn a state law so that iron imported from India could be sold to the state Department of Transportation.
State lobbying laws require that lobbyists disclose their clients, but only the New Jersey company showed up as registered here.
Beason claimed that he was unaware of the arrangement, that he didn't know the other companies had chipped in to pay him.
Marshall's office wasn't convinced, and at one point fined him $110,000. The fine was later reduced to $30,000. Earlier this month, a judge sided with Beason and threw out the fine.
The case raises an interesting point that has nothing to do with Beason or companies trying to sell imported iron to the state.
Marshall and her office, in their role overseeing lobbying in North Carolina, clearly have an obligation to try to sort through who is paying the lobbyists plying their trade in and around Raleigh's Jones Street.
The law that requires registration of lobbyists and those who employ them is there to ensure transparency in government. At the root of the law is a presumption that the public has a right to know who is spending money to try to influence their elected representatives.
So why doesn't the same apply to nonprofit organizations and trade associations? Why doesn't Marshall's shop also have an obligation to sort through who is funding nonprofits on the left and the right when they employ lobbyists?
Under current law, she has no obligation or ability to do so.
So we the public don't necessarily know who is behind the myriad of business-related associations, think tanks and do-gooder organizations that employ lobbyists in Raleigh.
Some of those groups do disclose their major donors; others don't. Federal law requires that they disclose major donors to the IRS. When those same tax forms are released publicly, donors can be deleted.
So how would the public ever know if a company with an interest in selling imported iron to the state gave a huge sum to one of these groups - rather than to a private firm - and one of these groups' lobbyists then spent an entire legislative session working the one issue?
The answer: It wouldn't.
But surely that kind of thing never happens.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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