Most lobbyists abided by key reporting requirements between midyear 2011 and midyear 2012, with compliance generally consistent with the past, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office review released Monday.
At least 74 percent of lobbying disclosure filings and political contribution reports that lobbyists are required to file met six compliance requirements the GAO highlighted in its annual survey of the influence industry's reporting obligations. Changes in compliance levels amounted to less than 12 percent in either direction for any category.
Along the way, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, which prosecutes lobbyist scofflaws, has reached settlements with three lobbying firms since 2011. Senior officials also are set to review a request to pursue criminal or civil charges against two, unnamed lobbyist organizations, according to the GAO.
Of the 100 quarterly lobbying disclosure reports the GAO studied, in 97 the lobbyists could provide paperwork to back up the fees they claimed, a 4 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. And 74 reports reflected income or expenses that were properly rounded to the nearest $10,000, an 11 percent uptick from the GAO's midyear 2010 to midyear 2011 review. Also, only 10 percent of the 3,074 new lobbying registrations lacked a corresponding quarterly report filed within three months of the registrations, as required—a 2 percent decrease from the same period a year before.
The setbacks in major compliance requirements the GAO noted were minimal. Of the 100 reports examined by GAO, 15 incorrectly disclosed former government positions held by lobbyists, a 4 percent jump from the agency's midyear 2010 to midyear 2011 review. And the lobbyists in 15 filings didn't submit to Congress their required political contribution reports, a 1 percent increase. Of the 160 political contribution reports the GAO reviewed, 6 percent didn't include one or more donations recorded by the Federal Election Commission, a 2 percent uptick.
"Most lobbyists in our sample rated the terms associated with [lobbying] reporting as 'very easy' or 'somewhat easy' to understand with regard to meeting their reporting requirements," the GAO report says. "However, a few cited challenges to complying with the [lobbying law] such as differentiating between lobbying and non-lobbying activities."
The GAO doesn't identify which lobbyist organizations didn't comply with disclosure requirements. But law firms filed several of the 100 lobbying disclosure reports the agency reviewed. Filings from Arent Fox, Covington & Burling and K&L Gates were among the records examined.
Monte Ward, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said his group is pleased with the GAO's findings. But he said Congress must address confusion about what constitutes lobbying.
"That's something we've been talking about for a few years," Ward said.
Under federal law, an individual must register as a lobbyist if he or she spends at least 20 percent of his or her time during a quarterly period lobbying period working to influence the U.S. executive or legislative branches. But, according to Center for Responsive Politics, the number of D.C. lobbyists flying under the radar is increasing. The number of active federal lobbyists has fallen during the past five years, with many likely entering the murky world of unregistered policy influencing, the Washington-based government watchdog said in a report released last month.
Bill Miller, a spokesman for the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office, said in a written statement that prosecutors are "aggressively pursuing organizations that repeatedly disregard their filing obligations." But he declined to identify the two organizations that have been brought to the attention of office leaders for possible charges.
"Repeat offenders who fail to take their reporting obligations seriously will be held accountable in order to protect the public’s right to know who is seeking to influence policy on Capitol Hill," Miller said.