Steadman bill looks to limit lobbyist abuses, conflicts of interest

State Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, says the timing of his bill meant to clean up lobbying practices at the state Capitol is purely coincidental and not related to recent ethics allegations or any one case in particular. Steadman says Senate Bill 87 stems from the 15 years he spent as a lobbyist and his inside knowledge of best practices.

“I don’t have any one particular case that prompted the bill, but I think it would surprise people to know that there’s nothing in current law about lobbyists with conflicts of interest selling one client down the river at the expense of another,” Steadman said. “It’s not uncommon.”

SB 87 passed the Senate on a 20 to 13 party-line vote, Republicans all dissenting, last month and is scheduled for a House Appropriations Committee hearing Friday.

The bill would prohibit lobbyists from misleading elected officials by providing false information; concealing the identity of a client; making a loan to an elected official; influencing an elected official with a threat of reprisal; or influencing an elected official by contacting their employer.

“It adds a whole new section on ethical practices and prohibited practices for lobbyists, about conflicts of interest or unethical ways of going about lobbying, like lobbying somebody through their employer or using economic threats or physical threats of violence against legislators, which has been in the headlines recently,” Steadman said.

On Monday, legislative leaders found that lobbyist Nate Gorman didn’t violate any rules despite allegations by Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, that Gorman threatened to cut out his “lying tongue” because of a dispute over one of McKinley’s bills. The conflict was the subject of ethics panel meetings last week.

Although Steadman’s bill would strengthen penalties for threatening behavior, it’s really aimed at full disclosure and resolution of conflicts. The bill ups the fine for failing to disclose what bills paid lobbyists are advocating for (from $10 a day to $100 a day 10 days past the monthly deadline) and allows the Secretary of State to deny registration for any lobbyist who doesn’t pay their fines.

“In the world of attorneys, conflicts of interest can be handled if there’s disclosure and consent and everybody understand what’s happening, and good lobbyists use those same practices,” Steadman said. “So the bill would ask [lobbyists] to do that same thing – disclose your conflicts to your clients and don’t lobby in a situation where you have a conflict unless you’ve resolved it with your clients.”

The Secretary of State’s office helped develop the bill, according to SOS public information officer Rich Coolidge.

“There are pieces of it that we took from a legislative audit committee report about making sure that the lobbyist program is self-sustaining, i.e., all the fees and fines that come in pay for the program, so there’s that component,” Coolidge said. “The one that we wanted was for preventing registration for outstanding fines, and then Sen. Steadman has some things that he wanted included as well. We support the vast majority of the bill.”

Steadman did amend part of the bill that made it mandatory for volunteer lobbyists to register with the Secretary of State, which they felt was a burden and might discourage volunteer lobbying.

“A piece of the bill talks about volunteer lobbyists and currently our office doesn’t have any oversight over volunteer lobbyists. They register with the House clerk,” Coolidge said. “We don’t have a position on that. If the Legislature wants to put them under our purview, I think we can do that.”

But Steadman backed off that provision, even though he feels even volunteers should adhere to the same ethical standards as paid lobbyists. The big thing is to prevent lobbyists from actively working both sides of the fence and failing to disclose conflicts to clients.

“The highest bidder wins and you don’t even tell your smaller client that’s paying you less that you’re out there raiding money out of their line item or passing legislation that’s going to be detrimental to their interest until after the fact,” Steadman said.

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