Looking into Lobbying Federal Contracts and Grants

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This story, about the problems that the Coast Guard and its contractor, Integrated Coast Guard Systems (a joint venture of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin), are having with their Deepwater program, got me thinking–and about something other than this report on the program by the Inspector General of the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Under federal law (it’s title 31 U.S.C. section 1352, for those of you keeping score at home), contractors and subcontractors, for-profits and non-profits, universities and state and local governments that lobby the federal government for contracts, grants, cooperative guarantees, loans, loan guarantees or loan insurance have to file a form, called SF-LLL, when they lobby the federal government for that contract, grant, cooperative guarantee, and so on. The instructions that come with the form say, “The filing of a form is required for each payment or agreement to make payment to any lobbying entity for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of any agency, a Member of Congress,an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with a covered Federal action.”

That’s a mouthful, but what it means, I believe, is that a company that’s lobbying, say, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security for an earmark would have to file an SF-LLL along with its contract proposal to the Department of Homeland Security, and then again every time it makes a payment to its lobbying firm. That’s pretty useful information to have, because the presence or absence of an SF-LLL allows us to distinguish between which contracts, grants and so on are awarded solely through regular procurement procedures, and which recipients of federal funds hired lobbyists seeking House or Senate members, or their staffers, or administration officials, to intervene on their behalf.

It would be helpful to have a nice big pile of SF-LLLs as a reference when looking at federal contracting and grantmaking data. Even more helpful, of course, would be to have that information integrated into the data on sites like FedSpending.org and the Open Secrets lobbying database. However, I suspect that we’re a long way away from having that kind of transparency.

Form SF-LLL says, in a box on the lower left hand side of the page, that “This information is open to public inspection.” I’m curious to see how hard it is to inspect an SF-LLL. Below is a copy of my first serious effort to do so–a request made under the Freedom of Information Act for any SF-LLLs filed in connection with the first Deepwater contract, HSCG23-02-C-2DW001, which Integrated Coast Guard Systems won in 2002. On page seven of this 2002 lobbying disclosure form (that is, the kind filed with the House and Senate), Northrop Grumman notes it lobbied on Deepwater, as does Lockheed Martin on page 19 of this 2002 lobbying disclosure. It does not seem unreasonable to assume that their lobbying would have involved the actual awarding of the Deepwater contract referred to above, but of course I could be mistaken (and hopefully, we’ll find out the answer soon from the Coast Guard).

Over the next couple of days, I’m going to send out some more FOIAs asking for SF-LLLs for different contracts issued by various agencies. Sometimes, like in the Deepwater example here, I’ll focus on a single contract. In others, I’ll see if I can find a broader approach. I’m also going to make some calls around town to lobbyists, to government agencies, to congressional staffs and others to try to trace the history of form SF-LLL (which is actually quite fascnating–and quite relevant to what we’re trying to accomplish here at Sunlight. More on that in a bit).

Here’s the text of the FOIA, sent to the Coast Guard electronically just a few minutes ago:

Donald Taylor
FOIA Officer
U.S. Coast Guard
Commandant (CG-611)
2100 2nd St., S.W.
Washington, DC 20593-0001

Dear Mr. Taylor:

Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, I requesting copies of the following documents:

Any and all forms SF-LLL (as required by 31 U.S.C. § 1352) filed by or on behalf of Northrop Grumman Corp. or Lockheed Martin Corp. in connection with the contract award number HSCG23-02-C-2DW001 made to Integrated Coast Guard Systems, Duns number 0364758330000.

I respectfully request a waiver of all costs associated with fulfilling this submission pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(iii). Disclosure of the requested records will further the “public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest” of the requester, the Sunlight Foundation.

Founded in 2006, the Sunlight Foundation is a 501(c)3, nonpartisan organization dedicated to furthering transparency in government. Sunlight disseminates information about its activities to thousands of concerned citizens, policymakers, and the media via its Web site http://www.sunlightfoundation.com.

Please feel free to call or email me if this request requires further clarification. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,