California regulators are considering a plan to curb secret lobbying at the state Capitol.
The Fair Political Practices Commission plans to vote Thursday on narrowing a regulation that allows people to avoid identifying themselves as lobbyists by attending Capitol meetings as experts. They comply with current rules by working alongside lobbyists who are properly registered.
The regulation has faced scrutiny as a way for former legislators and officials to skirt state rules requiring they wait a year after leaving office to lobby their former colleagues.
"People found it to be a little bit of a loophole," FPPC Chairwoman Jodi Remke told a Sacramento Press Club luncheon last month. "We did have political operatives going along with paid lobbyists, kind of opening the door to certain public officials' offices and saying that their 'expertise' was the political process."
The proposed change would clarify the exception applies only to bona fide experts on specific, pending legislative or administrative actions.
Attorneys at the state's political watchdog sought the change after deciding last September that former Assembly Speaker and Lieutenant Gov. Cruz Bustamante complied with the rule when he repeatedly lobbied from 2008 through 2013, but never reported it. He left office in January 2007.
A two-year FPPC investigation found Bustamante's firm presented its consulting services as a less-expensive alternative to "big lobbyists." Contracts and testimonials included in FPPC documents the agency provided to The Associated Press show Bustamante worked on behalf of at least one local government and the cruise-line industry to influence legislative action.
"But it appears many of your communications took place in the company of a registered lobbyist paid by your client," thereby exempting Bustamante from disclosing his lobbying activities, commission lawyer Dave Bainbridge wrote in a September 2015 advice letter.
"After a thorough review by the FPPC, there were no findings," Bustamante said in an email response. He provided no other comment.
The change could be too vague for potential lobbyists to properly or uniformly follow, Sacramento attorney Diane Fishburn said at a hearing on the proposed rule change last month.
But Carl Borden, a California Farm Bureau lawyer, said the proposed change would not affect him or other registered lobbyists.
"It's kind of a nothing-burger for us at this point," Borden said.
What critics call a "revolving door" between the Legislature and special interests was highlighted in December when former Assemblyman Henry Perea, a Fresno Democrat, resigned and went to work for the pharmaceutical industry. Two state senators left office in 2013 to join the lucrative lobbying business.
Former FPPC counsel Robert Stern said the commission should get rid of the exemption entirely.
The rule dates to the 1970s. It was intended to allow people to occasionally talk to lawmakers without having to register with the state and track their time at the Legislature, so long as they are not paid to sway legislators' opinions. For instance, the rule would exempt from disclosure teachers who join a California Teachers Association lobbyist at the Capitol to discuss their classroom experiences.
"The purpose has always been a fairly limited view of who's attending these meetings," commission lawyer Heather Rowan said at the Feb. 10 public meeting on the proposal.