Thousands of alleged lobbying violations languish at Justice Department

A new government report found thousands of reports of lobbying violations remain unresolved years after they were referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), the 1995 law that mandates transparency into federal lobbying activities, lobbyists must file new registrations with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House within 45 days, quarterly disclosures detailing specific lobbying activities and how much they were paid, and semiannual political contribution reports.

When a lobbyist or firm fails to comply with the reporting requirements, the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House notify them and make referrals to the USAO only when they fail to provide a proper response.

Around 74 percent of the 3,622 referrals the USAO has received for alleged quarterly lobbying reporting violations since 2014 were still pending as of January, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is tasked under the LDA with an annual audit of lobbyists’ compliance. 

The GAO also found around two-thirds of alleged political contribution reporting violations are still open: about 67 percent of the 2,128 lobbying firms and 65 percent of the 7,962 individual lobbyists referred to the USAO since 2014.

Referrals were pending because “USAO could not locate the lobbyists, did not receive a response from the lobbyists after an enforcement action, or planned to conduct additional research to determine if it can locate the lobbyist,” the report notes. Only around 1 percent of referrals were suspended due to the death of the lobbyist or the fact that the lobbyist or firm went out of business.

“While it’s certainly possible, maybe even likely, that a number of these violations are ultimately the result of minor mistakes or oversight, the fact that so many cases remain unresolved for so long should be a red flag that critical oversight of a massively influential industry is failing,” Robert Maguire, vice president for research at the nonprofit watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told The Hill.

Nearly 13,000 federal lobbyists disclosed receiving a total of $4.3 billion in 2023, according to the nonpartisan money-in-politics organization OpenSecrets. The overwhelming majority of lobbyists do comply with reporting requirements, the GAO found, and the alleged violations make up a small percentage of the tens of thousands of disclosures filed each year.

Noncompliant lobbyists are also offered “ample opportunity” to correct their filings, and these situations are “typically cleared up by just filing the report,” Steve Roberts, a partner at Holtzman Vogel, told The Hill.

“Enforcement of this is so lenient as is and then to have that backlog outstanding is pretty remarkable,” Roberts said.

While it is frequently said that the LDA operates on an “honor system,” the USAO does have the authority to respond to alleged violations — including with potential criminal and civil penalties — and the longstanding logjam raises questions about its ability to do so.

“Honor systems always have consequences,” Maguire said. “Trusting people to do what they’re required to do doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be consequences for failing to do so, but that is in effect what we’re seeing here.”

USAO officials do maintain a database of “chronic offenders,” defined as lobbyists who repeatedly fail to file reports despite allegedly lobbying or who have been hit with more than 10 referrals — although they told GAO they were updating the list to include only lobbyists who are still noncompliant and they are able to locate.

Neither the USAO for the District of Columbia nor the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs responded to requests for comment from The Hill.

The sizable backlog could stem from an “understaffed office that has a lot of competing resources and LDA has rarely been high on that list,” Roberts said.

But USAO officials told the GAO they had sufficient resources and authority to enforce LDA reporting requirements.

USAO officials told GAO “they have one full-time permanent program compliance coordinator, two paralegal specialists assigned part time, and one full-time civil investigator” who aim to review and update pending cases every six months. Criminal assistant U.S. attorney and civil assistant U.S. attorneys are also available to pursue criminal or civil penalties as needed.

According to the GAO report, USAO officials separate pending cases into the following categories: “initial research for referral,” “responded but not compliant,” “no response/waiting for a response,” “bad address” and “unable to locate.” 

After numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact a lobbyist, USAO officials told GAO that they may circle up with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House to decide if additional enforcement actions are necessary. 

They also said they close referrals if they are unable to locate a lobbyist or their address, focusing on “responded but not compliant” and “no response/waiting for a response” cases.

“I think people should absolutely care if there’s a violation that is not handled in some way or another, whether that’s by the filer just getting their report in and disclosing completely and accurately what they’re doing, or whether it’s the [Justice Department] taking some kind of action,” Roberts said.

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