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2017 Issue 5 | Download as a PDF


Misunderstanding State and Local Lobbying Disclosure Laws Comes With a Price


Misunderstanding State and Local Lobbying Disclosure Laws Comes With a Price

In February 2017, former Uber executive David Plouffe was fined $90,000 by the Chicago Board of Ethics for failing to register as a lobbyist in the city before contacting Mayor Rahm Emanuel about ridesharing regulations at Chicago’s airports. The citation was triggered by an email exchange from November 2015 that became public with the release of over 2,500 pages of the mayor’s private emails. Facing the possibility of tighter rideshare industry regulations, Plouffe sent Emanuel a message expressing Uber’s opposition to the “significant new hurdles” created by the proposed rules in the hopes of “resolving these issues.”
Sending such a message falls under the city’s definition of lobbying. As such, Mr. Plouffe was required under the Chicago Governmental Ethics Ordinance to register as a lobbyist with the Board of Ethics within five business days of contacting the mayor. He did not register until April 2016. Since the Ordinance considers each day a violation continues to be a separate offense subject to a separate fine, the Board assessed a fine of $1,000 for each of the ninety business days that separated Plouffe’s contact with the mayor and his eventual registration. 
Mr. Plouffe’s citation—and the Board of Ethics’ pursuit of another 26 possible violations exposed by the email release—underscores the importance of learning and complying with lobbying disclosure obligations at the state and local level. While federal requirements are covered by a single piece of legislation (the Federal Lobbying Disclosure Act), local and state laws, regulations, and ordinances vary widely. It is not uncommon for nonprofit organizations to unwittingly run afoul of state and local disclosure obligations simply because these requirements are less publicized than their federal counterpart. 
The time to start thinking about lobbying disclosure laws is before your organization undertakes any public policy advocacy within a particular jurisdiction. Some laws apply not just to direct communications with government officials, but also to public communications designed to influence legislative or executive branch action. In some cases, individual employees may be subject to registration and reporting requirements that are separate from those that may apply to their employer. Organizations that operate across state, county, and even city lines should understand that activities that do not trigger registration and reporting requirements in one jurisdiction may do so in another. 

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