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L.A.'s badge plan has lobbyists chafing

Ethics Commission says all paid advocates should have to identify themselves at city buildings and events.

August 31, 2008|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Lobbyists who work the corridors of Los Angeles City Hall are up in arms over a plan to make them wear badges identifying their profession each time they enter a municipal building.

The City Ethics Commission will meet this week to begin reviewing a planned overhaul of its lobbying ordinance, which contains a proposal to require lobbyists to wear the badges at any city-sponsored event and any other location where they are "engaged in lobbying."

The proposal is part of a larger effort to help the commission smoke out those who fail to disclose that they are getting paid to influence city decisions, from the award of city contracts to the approval of large-scale development projects.

Still, the badge concept has become a particular lightning rod, with lobbyists accusing the city of trying to shame them -- by sticking the equivalent of a "Scarlet L" on their lapels.

"It's another attempt by the Ethics Commission to make it undesirable to be a lobbyist, and it has no public policy benefit," said lobbyist Steve Afriat, whose firm represents billboard companies and other businesses.

Others have gone so far as to liken the proposed badge to the Star of David imposed on Jews in Nazi-era Germany.

"I refuse to wear the equivalent of a yellow arm band," said lobbyist Harvey Englander, whose firm has represented hotels near Los Angeles International Airport that fought a new living wage law for their employees.

Ethics officials have been taken aback by the references to anti-Semitism, saying their proposal has a valid and inoffensive policy goal. Elected officials have complained privately that they can't always tell if the person talking to them is getting paid to sway them on an issue, said David Tristan, the commission's director of program operations.

The badge "was never meant as something negative," he said. "In fact, we were hoping it could be viewed as something positive, where people could get familiar with who these people are."

The four-page lobbying proposal will be reviewed over the next two months and would ultimately need to be approved by the Los Angeles City Council. Although some of the changes are minor, one major objective is to help officials and employees identify unregistered lobbyists who are working on behalf of city contractors, real estate developers or other special interests.

Some within the city's lobbying ranks -- mostly those who have gone to the trouble of filling out the Ethics Commission's extensive paperwork -- have argued that there are a number of unregistered lobbyists who have gotten a free pass from the city's enforcement agency.

Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre did not register as a lobbyist until last year, after The Times reported that he had spoken to five elected officials and seven city departments regarding various companies and issues. One nonprofit group, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, registered in mid-January, weeks after city officials received a public records request from a law firm asking for the number of times the group had met privately with the city's elected officials.

Under the current law, lobbyists are not required to register with the Ethics Commission until they have spent at least 30 hours working on a particular issue in a single three-month period. The new proposal would require lobbyists to identify themselves when they have made a single contact -- for pay -- with an elected official or other city decision-maker.

"People that are on salary don't keep hourly records," Tristan said. "They're on salary, so a one-contact rule would basically mean that if you have one contact, you're basically a lobbyist."

Such a change would probably require registration by figures such as attorney Mickey Kantor, a former federal cabinet secretary who did not register as a lobbyist even though he spoke to city harbor commissioners three times last year on behalf of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, according to port documents.

Lobbying firms are still pushing for the city to require that unpaid groups, such as homeowners associations, register as well. And business leaders have voiced irritation about a plan to exempt some nonprofit groups from registering, saying that it would keep the public from understanding how certain public decisions are made.

Los Angeles is not the only city looking to tighten its lobbying rules. San Diego put a similar law into effect on Jan. 1, lowering the earning threshold for requiring a lobbyist to register from $2,730 every three months to $1.

That change brought to light a number of unregistered lobbying clients, said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit group that plans to weigh in on the Los Angeles lobbying proposal.

"Qualcomm [Stadium] had never registered before. SeaWorld had never registered before. And the unions never registered before," he said.

Despite the uproar over badges in Los Angeles, at least one lobbyist sounded willing to make a deal on the issue. Afriat said he would be willing to wear the new identification, as long as he no longer has to pass through the metal detectors that greet every person who enters City Hall.

"You let me get through security without emptying my pockets, and I'll wear anything," he said.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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