Whenever the cry goes up in Washington for lobbying reform, lobbyists insist that there’s really no need for any serious change. After all, they’ll say, we are already required to report our activities under disclosure laws, so the public and the press already have ways to monitor our actions.
The truth, of course, is that lobbyists routinely fail to disclose the scope of their activities. Indeed, by some estimates as many as half of all lobbyists working for foreign clients don’t bother to register.
A number of lobbyists I met with during my undercover story for the magazine last year told me that disclosure laws required them to report very little information, and that part of the work I said I wanted them to do on behalf of the Stalinist regime of Turkmenistan would not need to be disclosed at all. (Incidentally, that story is the basis for a book, Turkmeniscam, that will be published in September and shamelessly peddled here). Stephen Payne, the lobbyist recently busted for seeking to sell access to the Bush Administration, seems to have been “strangely absent from the Justice Department’s database for registering foreign agents.”
There are a number of loopholes in disclosure laws that make it simple, and sometimes legal, for lobbyists to keep their activities quiet. Consider here the case of former G.O.P. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who retired in 2003 and immediately joined the firms of DLA Piper. Armey holds the title of senior policy advisor and has registered to lobby for a number of Piper’s clients.
But Armey has worked for at least one client–Interdigital, a Pennsylvania-based defense contractor–without disclosing his involvement. I’ve seen documents and have other firm evidence showing that Armey lobbied at least one congressional office in both 2005 and 2006 on behalf of a defense appropriation for Interdigital. Piper did register as a lobbyist for the firm, but Armey’s name does not appear on the list of employees who handled the account. (One name that did appear: Mark Murray, who previously “served for a combined 26 years as professional staff on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and has extensive knowledge of the appropriations process, especially the area of law governing foreign assistance, defense, and military” issues.)
With Armey’s help, it looks like Interdigital received a $1 million defense earmark in 2006. The earmark was announced by Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton of New York–the company has a major office in Melville, on Long Island–but the request for the funding originated in the House, according to research by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
I asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, if Armey should have been required to register to lobby for Interdigital. “He wouldn’t have to register…unless he devoted 20% of the total time he spent representing Interdigital to lobbying activities as defined by [lobby law],” she said. “Many former members, like Armey, avoid individual registration by making sure they don’t cross this 20% threshold.”
“It’s extremely easy for an individual to avoid having to register under the [law],” another ethics expert I whom asked about the situation told me.
So it’s possible that Armey didn’t break the rules by not registering–perhaps the law is so loophole-riddled he didn’t need to. I called Armey to ask about his activities for Interdigital but he didn’t reply to a request for comment. I spoke to two other Piper officials who initially promised they would look into the matter, but never got back to me with definitive answers.