How hard can it be for the city Ethics Commission to spot a guy like ex-councilman and convicted felon Richard Alatorre around City Hall, ask a couple questions and conclude that he might be lobbying without having registered? Times reporters David Zahniser and Ted Rohrlich found more than a handful of city officials, including five members of the City Council, whom Alatorre approached on behalf of clients who had matters before the council or city commissions.
This is perfectly legal -- if the lobbyist registers. Registration puts the public on notice about who is contacting their representatives and who the paying clients are. It removes public business from the recesses of the back room and makes the identity of the players clear. That's why failure to register is punishable by fines and even jail.
But "punishable" is not the same as "punished." That's because commission staff can't go after an unregistered lobbyist if they don't know who he or she is, and they don't know who he or she is if the person isn't registered -- unless there is a whistle-blower, or a newspaper story, or enough evidence in plain sight at City Hall that failure to move forward with a probe simply isn't an option. It's a perfect circle of regulatory impotence.
The commission's failure to enforce registration laws must make the nearly 300 lobbyists who do register wonder why they bother. For their trouble -- an annual filing fee, mandatory quarterly reports showing how much they were paid and by whom -- they are often viewed as shady characters who work in the shadows, when in fact they are the ones operating in the light of day.
City law also requires lobbyists to attend Ethics Commission training. But the commission's low priority on lobbying enforcement manifests itself again: It hasn't conducted the sessions.
The (seldom-deserved) unsavory reputation of properly registered City Hall lobbyists led Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to ban them from his commissions to avoid all appearance of impropriety. But lobbying becomes an intolerable conflict of interest chiefly when the same person backs up his request for a favorable decision with large amounts of campaign cash. City law bars a lobbyist from contributing to campaigns -- but, of course, if the lobbyist didn't register, there's no way to know whether he or she is breaking the law.
A motion by Councilwoman Wendy Greuel would help. It asks city staff to consider whether commissioners could be required to report private contacts by lobbyists. If a lobbyist started bending a commissioner's ear, there would be no doubt that the contact would be reported, unless the official wanted to end up in hot water alongside the unregistered lobbyist. We're under no illusion that Greuel's approach would clean up City Hall, but it would at least provide some relief to this particular bit of nonsense.