This is the first in a three-part series.
Almost daily, Arizona politicians face an army of lobbyists who are ready to spend money on dinners, drinks, parties and travel, aimed at currying favor and eventually bending the public policy agenda toward the will of their sometimes deep-pocketed clients.
But the vast majority of lobbying activity in the state is reported without any mention of who is benefiting from the money or the nature of the expenditure, an Arizona Capitol Times analysis shows.
In 2011 and 2012 alone, 60 percent of the expenditure reports required for lobbyists and their organizations do not list the recipients of lobbying money. In dollar amounts, that comes out to $2.37 million dollars — or about 92 percent — of the $2.57 million dollars reported as a lobbying effort during those years.
All the lobbying activity must be reported to the Secretary of State’s Office, which in theory lets the public see who is spending money on which politicians and on behalf of which organizations. In reality, the records are incomplete, mainly because of loopholes that are permitted by reporting laws. And the documents are marred by errors, suggesting a nearly complete lack of oversight.
There are several reasons so little of the money lobbyists spend to influence policy can be linked to a specific lawmaker or public official.
Lobbyists frequently use an exemption for reporting small expenditures, or another exemption governing expensive special events. Creative lobbyists employ strategies and logic to stretch those exemptions to their legal limits, and possibly beyond.
While these two exemptions make up a large majority of the expenditures on unnamed beneficiaries, there are other examples of lobbyists perhaps not complying with the laws.
Even though violating the state’s lobbying reporting laws is a Class 1 misdemeanor, virtually no investigations into potential violations are ever launched.
Big events, little reported
A main reason lobbyists don’t report who is eating dinners, drinking beverages, taking trips and using tickets is simple: If it’s a “special event,” lobbyists don’t have to list it.
A special event is defined in law as one in which all members of the Legislature, either of its chambers or any legislative committee are invited. Special events can include parties, dinners, entertainment and other functions, including sporting events.
For such events, lobbyists need not report who attended. But they are required to report a description of the event, the date, location and price, as well as the name of the legislative body that was invited.
Special event spending accounted for $1.47 million in 2011 and 2012, or 62 percent of all the money reported without a mention of who it was intended to influence.
Among the most common special events are lunches on the Capitol lawn, which happen almost daily during the legislative session.
In 2011, the Barrett-Jackson Auction Company reported spending $295,000 on lobbying at its annual gala before its car auction in Scottsdale. It was the most expensive special event reported that year.
That equals more than $3,200 per lawmaker, though there’s no way of knowing which lawmakers attended the event. Barrett-Jackson did report that all 90 lawmakers were invited.
Jason Rose, of Rose Moser Allyn Public and Online Relations, which represents Barrett-Jackson, said the company reported the total cost of the event as a lobbying expense out of an abundance of caution. The actual benefit that lawmakers received was closer to $5,400, based on $60 tickets made available to all 90 lawmakers.
Rose said Barrett-Jackson invited lawmakers in order to raise the profile of the event and ensure that they are aware of the benefits that come with hosting the world’s largest car auction. He noted there are also more concrete reasons. For example, when lawmakers are debating emission standards, they will know a little something about classic cars, which often cannot meet the standards.
But in 2012, Barrett-Jackson discontinued the practice of inviting lawmakers because it became superfluous, he said.