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Lobbying Disclosure in Menendez Case: Too Little, Too Late

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The scandal surrounding Senator Robert Menendez continues. This time it’s not front page grabbing allegations involving prostitutes and private jets, but undisclosed influence peddling in the halls of Congress. Politico reported yesterday that Alan Reider, a lobbyist with powerhouse lobbying firm Arnold & Porter, was hired to lobby on behalf of Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, an eye care company owned by Salomon Melgen, the Florida ophthalmologist and Menendez campaign contributor who has been tied to many of the controversies surrounding the Senator.

Lobbying registrations are supposed to be filed 45 days after making a lobbying contact. Arnold & Porter just missed that deadline—by about four years. According to reports filed this week, Reider began lobbying on behalf of Vitreo-Retinal in 2009. He lobbied for the company again in 2012—activities that went unreported until this week.

It seems the lobbying effort was a success in as much as Menendez contacted government officials in 2009 and 2012 on behalf of Melgen, arguing that the government’s decision to penalize Vitreo-Retinol for overbilling Medicare by $8.9 million was unfair.

Until the Menendez scandal erupted, Melgen’s lawyers had claimed he never hired a lobbyist. Only after the story gained traction did Arnold & Porter review its books and decide it needed to file the mandatory reports.

A four-year delay in reporting wholly undermines the purpose of the Lobbyist Disclosure Act, which is to bring transparency and accountability to paid efforts to influence government officials. But the lobby disclosure law is so vague and full of loopholes that, four years ago, Arnold & Porter may have decided it was not legally required to file a report. (And disclosed now only out of an overabundance of caution.) Under the law, disclosure reports need to be filed only when a lobbyist spends more than 20 percent of his time lobbying on behalf of any particular client. Reider may well have spent less than 20 percent of his time lobbying for Vitreo-Retinol. But lobbying disclosure should not be based on when the lobbyist punches in and out. Paid lobbying activities should be made public, in real time, no matter how long they take.

That’s why the Sunlight Foundation advocates eliminating the 20 percent loophole. Such a bright line would eradicate the need for lobbyists to determine whether their lobbying activities triggered registration and reporting requirements. If someone is paid to lobby, he or she should register and report his or her lobbying efforts.

The delayed Vitreo-Retinal lobby report brings to light another deficiency with the current lobby disclosure law—that lobbyists do not need to name the Members of Congress they met with. Lobbyists must say only that they lobbied the House, the Senate or the Executive Branch. Even if the disclosure reports at issue here had been filed on time, they would not have disclosed that Reider lobbied Senator Menendez. We know that now only because journalists decided to dig into the issue in light of the other controversies surrounding Menendez and Melgen. But we should not have to wait for intrepid reporters to follow up on a scandal in order to find out which Members of Congress are being lobbied by whom and for what. As this case makes abundantly clear, what’s relevant is not just that Melgen hired a lobbyist to aide his company with the Medicare overbilling issue, but that the lobbyist went to Menendez for help.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act must be amended to require real time disclosure of comprehensive lobbying information, so that we don’t have to wait until 2017 to find out what influence buying may be occurring right now.