Updated March 9, 2019 - 4:29 pm
A government program designed to bring transparency to lobbyists’ private meetings with Clark County Commission members operates without oversight or enforcement, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation has found.
On hundreds of occasions last year lobbyists may have failed to disclose communications within five days of meeting with a commissioner as required by law. The newspaper discovered the meetings by comparing lobbying disclosure forms submitted to the county clerk’s office with commissioners’ work calendars and check-in logs outside their offices.
As of Friday, 16 lobbyists filed more than 100 overdue disclosure forms for last year after the Review-Journal asked them about the missing paperwork. The meetings were for projects including home construction, an additional heliport at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, and a new lighting display at the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas.
More than one-third of the disclosures were filed by employees of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a lobbying firm with operations spanning the Western U.S. and in Washington D.C.
“We had some personnel changes in the past year and internal responsibility for the submittals was not properly transitioned,” firm spokeswoman Lara Day wrote in an email. “We have since provided our new team members with appropriate training on the process.”
The lack of compliance shows the vulnerability of a county lobbying program that operates without a watchdog.
Even an easy-to-monitor rule — whether filed disclosure forms are submitted on time — is not tracked, according to county staff. Penalties for noncompliance, written into county law a decade ago, have never been imposed by officials.
Presented with the newspaper’s findings, county commissioners pledged to keep better tabs on lobbying efforts.
“Going forward these (lobbying laws) will be strictly enforced,” commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said. “No policy is very good unless someone can enforce it.”
Influencing the government
County law requires lobbyists to list their clients when they register with the county each year.
In addition, every meeting and phone call meant to influence a commissioner’s vote must be accompanied by a disclosure form containing the names of the lobbyist and the commissioner, the date of their conversation and the subject discussed. Disclosures are due to the county clerk’s office within five days of the communication.
“Lobbying disclosures are important so we understand who is influencing the government,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open government. “Public policy affects everybody, and not everybody has the means to pay lobbyists to make arguments on their behalf.”
Lobbyists, who are responsible for turning in the forms, properly recorded more than 500 meetings with commissioners last year. But the Review-Journal’s analysis found more than 300 meetings with lobbyists that appeared on commissioners’ calendars and check-in logs that had not been disclosed.
While in many cases lobbyists contacted by the Review-Journal submitted overdue disclosure forms, they also said some meetings did not meet the requirements for disclosure.
Local attorney Jay Brown, a registered lobbyist, filed disclosure forms on time for more than 60 meetings with commissioners last year, but he did not submit paperwork for another 41 meetings that appeared on the elected officials’ calendars.
Brown said almost all those meetings would not be considered lobbying under county law.
Sometimes he met with a commissioner to introduce a new client. Other times he dropped by to talk politics. Brown said he regularly met with Steve Sisolak, then commission chairman, to discuss the politician’s gubernatorial campaign and connected fundraising efforts.
“We’ve got too much to lose with the commission and with others if we don’t play by the rules,” he said. “Clients won’t hire us if we don’t play by the rules.”
The county has required lobbyists to register since 1994 and to disclose communications since 2002. The policy was codified in 2009 after the Las Vegas Sun reported as many as 171 lobbyist meetings went undisclosed during the first half of 2008.
The new law laid out punishments for rule breakers including a six-month suspension for lobbying without registering and a two-month suspension for failing to file a disclosure form two or more times in a year. The county is also required to post the names of any rule breakers on its website and can fine them up to $1,000.
But the county has no record of ever penalizing a lobbyist under the law.
County spokesman Erik Pappa wrote in an email that the government hoped the threat of punishments would compel compliance.
“Given the extent of the problem, we will be making a concerted effort to remind lobbyists of the requirements of our policy, how important it is that they comply, and the ramifications for noncompliance,” Pappa wrote.
Lobbyists who submitted overdue disclosure forms chalked up the missing paperwork to clerical mistakes.
Attorneys at the Kaempfer Crowell law firm, the biggest lobbying force in local government, filed 11 new disclosure forms for 2018. That included meetings on behalf of some of the area’s biggest developers, including D.R. Horton, KB Home and Southern Highlands Development Corp.
Lobbying director Chris Kaempfer said his employees try their best to comply with the lobbying law and pointed to the hundreds of disclosures he and his employees properly filed last year.
“Sometimes an omission is made, but it certainly is not made out of a desire to hide anything,” Kaempfer said.
LAS Consulting principal Lucy Stewart filed 17 overdue forms, the most of any single lobbyist.
“It was a mistake, and I take full responsibility for it,” she wrote in an email. “Please know that I have created a system to guarantee the paperwork is filed in a timely and appropriate manner from now on, and I am putting that system into place.”
People who only represent clients before commissioners in public meetings are not deemed lobbyists, according to county law.
John “J.T.” Moran III — a Las Vegas attorney who did not register as a county lobbyist in 2018 — wrote in a series of emails that he was working within those parameters when he recently represented J.A. Kennedy Real Estate Co. The business sought the commission’s vote to build a drive-thru fast food restaurant in a shopping center south of Rhodes Ranch.
But then-Commissioner Susan Brager said she had two private meetings with Moran in December, during which he lobbied for the company’s proposed project. The commissioner’s calendar included the two meetings.
“If I’m wrong I’m happy to say that, but I sat right across from him,” Brager said.
Moran did not acknowledge meeting with Brager about the proposed restaurant project, only writing that he had represented the business before the commission during a public meeting this year.
Commissioner Larry Brown said he expects the commission to publicly discuss how to improve compliance with the lobbying law.
However, Brown said he would not like to spend more government resources on the program.
“I’d hesitate to create an additional staff position to chase down missing paperwork that the registered lobbyists should be responsible for,” he said. “To me, we’re creating a bureaucracy on the back end, a checks and balances, on an issue that should be taken care of on the front end.”
But without an auditor or watchdog, it will be difficult to tell whether any new measures are effective, said Wonderlich, leader of the open-government nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. “It sounds like a little bit more enforcement would go a long way toward painting a more complete picture of how influence is being wielded,” he said. “If there’s no enforcement there’s no sense in having penalties or a law at all.”
Sunshine Week starts Sunday
The Review-Journal is highlighting this investigation because Sunday marks the kickoff of Sunshine Week, an annual observance of the public’s right to documents and information about their government.
Over the week, the Review-Journal will join news outlets across the country in underscoring the use of critical state and federal laws to obtain government records that provide visibility and accountability for taxpayers.