Capitol lobbyist Richie Ross has agreed to pay $5,000 in fines to the state ethics agency for not collecting campaign consulting fees from two lawmakers, thus improperly putting them under the personal obligation to a lobbyist, officials said Monday.
Ross, who agreed to write off the debt owed by the legislators, is one of a few individuals who serve in dual roles as lobbyist and campaign consultant in California state elections.
“The Political Reform Act prohibits lobbyists from doing anything with the purpose of placing an elected state officer under personal obligation to the lobbyist,” said a report on the case by the enforcement staff of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
Ross’ campaign consultant contracts with state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) called for compensation in the form of monthly payments over a set period of months if the candidate won.
A 2009 contract with Lara called for the candidate to pay a win bonus of $90,000 in 10 equal monthly installments commencing on Jan. 1, 2011, as well as a 10% charge for late payments. But Lara failed to pay $60,000 of the win bonus and Ross stopped sending invoices after awhile.
A 2007 contract with Fong required the candidate to pay a $125,000 win bonus in 20 equal monthly payments beginning in February of 2009. Fong paid only $25,000 on the debt in the first half of 2009 and nothing more, and Ross did not send any additional invoices.
Ross told investigators he did not believe his actions violated the rules, but the enforcement staff said he failed to comply because he “did not make adequate efforts to collect debts owed to him and therefore did not receive full and adequate consideration for his services.”A similar complaint was received by the FPPC in 2006, but the enforcement staff did not find a lack of effort to collect debt.
The staff said the latest violations are potentially serious.
“The Act’s provisions prohibiting certain activities by lobbyists are aimed at preventing lobbyists from influencing state officials through means other than legitimate advocacy,” the staff report said. “A situation where a lobbyist holds the legal right to collect a significant debt from a legislator, or take no action on the debt, creates an obvious opportunity for improper influence by the lobbyist over the legislator, although there is no evidence before us that such improper influence occurred here.”
In deciding on half the maximum fine, the enforcement staff said Ross agreed to write off the debt owed to him and that he argued “in those cases where he was not successful in collecting the entirety of the debt owed, he was exercising business judgment in making the decision not to engage in legal action against the clients because, in his experience, clients are honorable people who always do their best to meet their obligations.” The commission will meet Nov. 20 to consider the staff-recommended fines.