Ethics agency closes loophole that allowed advocates to avoid registering as lobbyists

The state ethics watchdog agency acted Thursday to close a loophole that some say provided politically connected people with a direct link to influence state lawmakers' votes without registering as lobbyists.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission, meeting in Sacramento, changed the rules for a so-called “ride-along” exception to the lobbyist registration requirement.

The exception allowed lobbyists to bring others to meetings with legislators to help make their case — without requiring those people to register as lobbyists.

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“The proposed amendments seek to curb potential abuses by clarifying this narrow exception applies only to employees who are subject matter experts who attend meetings with a lobbyist to add substantive information on a particular issue,” said Hyla P. Wagner, the FPPC general counsel, in a report to the panel.

The new law is one of several being proposed this year to make sure lobbyists are registering.

It was floated in response to an investigation of former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s involvement in the demise of a 2008 bill that would have required law enforcement officers on cruise ships.

Bustamante, who was not registered as a lobbyist, reportedly talked to friends on the Legislative Latino Caucus, then-Sen. Joe Simitian, the bill’s author, later told investigators.

Simitian said that members of the Latino Caucus told him that they had been contacted by Bustamante “attempting to influence their vote by telling them to vote a certain way,” according to the investigative report by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

But the FPPC told Bustamante last year that it was closing the case without action, “despite the fact that you contacted state officials for the purpose of influencing legislative or administrative action on behalf of your clients.”

Investigators said they were unable to determine what portion of the monthly payments Bustamante received were for communicating with legislators compared with other activities. The ride-along exception also was too vague to determine whether a violation occurred.

The change was opposed as too ambiguous by Thomas W. Hiltachk, attorney for Institute of Governmental Advocates, a trade group for registered lobbyists.

However, commissioners said the change has the opposite effect of confusing the rules by specifying that a person accompanying a lobbyist must be a "subject matter expert" on the bill being discussed and an employee of the firm or group that retained the lobbyist.

“I think this is a really good regulation that is going to provide clarification,” said Jodi Remke, chairwoman of the panel.

The panel listed examples that would be in compliance, including a teacher to talk about classroom realities, a personnel director to talk about employee issues, a safety foreman to talk about changes in oilfield regulations or an engineer to explain technical issues.

Bustamante, a former Assembly speaker, did not return calls to his office seeking comment on the change in rules.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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