California's top political watchdog led her peers in approving a rule Thursday aiming to crack down on lobbyists who fail to disclose efforts to influence government officials.
The Fair Political Practices Commission passed a regulatory change championed by commission chairwoman Jodi Remke that allows state regulators to require suspected lobbyists to provide evidence showing whether they're being paid to influence government officials. If they don't, the agency will automatically decide they're in violation of state transparency laws.
Remke and agency attorneys said investigators are currently stymied in most probes of suspected unregistered lobbyists because the people who are targeted can simply say that they do not qualify as lobbyists.
The commission decided to change the process so investigators who suspect people of unregistered lobbying can require them to provide evidence that can be used to determine whether or not they broke lobbying rules.
Lobbyists are required to register with the state if the amount they make for communicating with government officials reaches $2,000 in any given month. The change permits investigators to demand evidence about their compensation and financial gain related to contact with government officials.
Critics say the proposal illegally requires alleged unregistered lobbyists to prove their innocence.
Commissioner Gavin Wasserman echoed opponents' concerns that the change gives the agency an unfair advantage since it acts as both accuser and judge.
Ultimately, Wasserman supported the overall aim of the rule and joined the panel in a unanimous 5-0 vote to approve it.
Critics warn that many lawyers, support staff at lobbying firms and citizens who reach out to legislators could be required to demonstrate that their jobs do not involve swaying public policy — or face administrative or judicial sanctions.
Remke and agency attorneys said stricter enforcement is needed because that system for identifying lobbyists is largely self-regulated.
"How do they know if they're complying with the law unless they're already monitoring their activity?" Remke said. "We think of this as an obligation for people to understand their responsibilities."
The proposal suggests suspected unregistered lobbyists testify or provide bills, receipts or other records to establish that their compensation was not used to get access to lawmakers or dine and entertain them.
The California Political Attorneys Association and Chapman University constitutional law professor Ronald Rotunda, a former commission member, said in opposition letters that the rule changes would shift the burden of proof to suspected unregistered lobbyists, violating their constitutional rights.
The proposal "will require a number of persons who are not admitted lobbyists to maintain records to prove they are not, if they are investigated and prosecuted by the FPPC," Rotunda wrote.
Remke said the changes she is seeking are aimed at letting citizens know who is trying to solicit votes from state lawmakers.
Earlier this year, the five-member commission approved new rules to prevent unregisteredlobbyists from pitching themselves as experts on topics of interest to legislators and required additional spending disclosure requirements for registered lobbyists.
"It isn't too hard to imagine that this new mother lode of information will provide a ready opportunity to investigate" suspected unregistered lobbyists, Rotunda said.
This story has been updated.