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Lobbyists in Virginia don't have to report how much they actually earn

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Richmond Virginia State Capitol

View of the Virginia state Capitol in Richmond. A former lobbyist wrote, “Virginia’s lobbyist disclosure laws are beyond meaningless and rise to the level of outright lies.”

A recent document from Dominion Energy in the ongoing review of its finances highlighted Virginia’s weak law when it comes to public disclosure of how much lobbyists are paid.

State lawmakers require companies or entities who hire lobbyists to report who the lobbyists are and how much they’re paid. But because there are several ways to calculate the payment amounts, the public disclosures generally are far below the actual dollar amounts the lobbyists earn.

Dominion’s document came in the ongoing “triennial review” of the investor-owned monopoly’s finances at the Virginia State Corporation Commission. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on it last week.

Steve Haner, a former lobbyist for Newport News Shipbuilding and others, wrote on the right-leaning blog Bacon’s Rebellion in response that the document illustrates the dramatic difference between the money lobbyists actually get paid vs. the amounts that are publicly disclosed on forms filed with Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.

As an example, Dominion paid lobbyist John Watkins, a former state senator, $92,297 in 2020, according to the State Corporation Commission document, which was filed in September.

But in June, Watkins and Dominion reported to the state ethics council that the utility paid him $1,109.38 to lobby in 2020.

Neither Dominion nor Watkins did anything wrong—they’re complying with the law in the June filing. So why the big discrepancy between what was reported and the actual dollar amount that surfaced in the State Corporation Commission review?

Haner explained in his blog post.

“Most of the firms, associations and lobbying groups hide the real amounts they spend. The rules allow them to disclose only that part of their expenses tied to direct lobbying, and they use the narrowest definition possible and claim most of the time is spent on other activities,” he wrote. “Anybody who fully discloses suddenly stands out, and appears to be the biggest spender, when in most cases they are not.”

Virginia’s lobbyist disclosure laws, Haner wrote, “are beyond meaningless and rise to the level of outright lies.”

The nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in state politics, also has highlighted the weak disclosure requirement in the law and how it allows lobbyists to calculate and report compensation in various ways.

VPAP gave a hypothetical example. If a client paid a lobbying firm $84,000, split equally between services billed and retainers, the firm could report compensation of $84,000, or $42,000 or a lower number of only the estimated time spent directly lobbying lawmakers.

So the law makes it difficult to examine or compare lobbyist compensation because there are a variety of ways it can be reported.

In short: The public has no way of knowing exactly how much money lobbyists are paid to lobby their elected representatives.

Haner said in an interview that his experience as a lobbyist gave him firsthand knowledge of how lobbyists avoid reporting how much they actually get paid.

A lobbyist may spend four hours setting up a five-minute meeting with a lawmaker, he said, but then only count the five minutes for purposes of reporting payment.

“It’s just a game that they play,” he said. “I was taught how to do it by one of the old lawyers.”

And on the topic of weak disclosure law, there’s another important void, he said. Lobbyists aren’t required to disclose the bills or appointments over which they lobbied. They can simply report things like, “matters related to energy.”

Josh Stanfield, a campaign finance reform advocate who runs the Twitter account @ActivateVA, said the lack of disclosure of payments contradicts how lawmakers describe the system.

“We hear from legislators time and again that Virginia has the best disclosure law in the country,” he said. “This undercuts that.”

Two legislators on the state’s ethics council, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, didn’t respond to questions Tuesday about why lobbyists aren’t required to report their actual compensation and whether the law should be changed to require that.

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