Blogger questions Md. Tea Party group on official lobbying status

State law requires groups to register if spending passes $2,000 threshold

April 03, 2010|By Annie Linskey | annie.linskey@baltsun.com

A Democratic blogger is stirring an online discussion over whether Maryland's main Tea Party group is operating out of bounds by pushing for state legislation without having registered as a lobbying organization.

It's not unusual for small, new groups to run afoul of the state Ethics Commission by failing to file required paperwork, but the issue has captured attention in this case because members of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity rail against "registered lobbyists" in their pitches to supporters.

Dave Schwartz, the Maryland state director for the organization, draws a distinction between the work of his group and the activities of mainstream lobbyists that he decries.

"A lobbyist, in the traditional sense, is somebody who is being paid to advocate on behalf of a business or a nonprofit," he said. "What we are doing, we are encouraging others to lobby as citizens on behalf of issues. I'm not being paid to advocate by any specific groups."

But Maryland law includes a category for "grassroots lobbying," which requires groups to register if they spend more than $2,000 on organizing people to talk with lawmakers about specific bills.

Americans for Prosperity claims 10,000 supporters in Maryland and employs two paid staff members full time. They've bused supporters to Annapolis twice — once on the opening day of the session, and again last month for the hearings on the budget. Their policy director has testified on the Health Care Freedom Act, a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the government from forcing citizens to buy health insurance, and they've funded robo-calls targeting a senator who opposed the legislation.

Schwartz, who used to raise money for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, said he conferred with an attorney for the organization's national umbrella and determined that they have not yet spent the $2,000 that would trigger disclosure.

"At this time we really don't qualify to participate," he said. "When we do, we will be glad to register."

In calculating costs, he counted expenditures for one bus trip and the robo-calls, but did not include any of the salaried time he and the policy director have spent on state legislation. Also he did not count any portion of the cost of maintaining the group's Web site, which focuses primarily on national legislation but includes a couple messages urging members to contact lawmakers on state legislation.

Knowingly failing to register is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $10,000 and a year imprisonment. But the state's Ethics Commission typically issues warning letters when they suspect that a group is trying to pressure government officials and hasn't filed the appropriate paperwork. Robert A. Hahn, the commission's executive director, would not say if the commission has issued a warning letter.

Steve Lebowitz, a blogger and Democratic operative, researched Americans for Prosperity after seeing one of the staff members testify in Annapolis. "I said that is great, I can get more information," Lebowitz said. "I've been starved for information." Using his Twitter page, he sent out numerous messages questioning the group's status, but said he has not lodged a formal complaint with the Ethics Commission.

Registering with the commission costs $100. Individuals must report the amounts they spend on entertaining lawmakers, their clients and how much they are paid by those clients. But grassroots organizations only need to supply basic contact information and describe the legislation they are pushing.

Adam Borden, who lobbied to end Maryland's ban of direct shipments of wine, registered his group shortly after the Ethics Commission sent him a letter warning that he might have been breaking the rules. "We reviewed our finances and determined that we were getting close" to the $2,000 threshold he said. "We knew that we would eventually exceed it, so we might as well register."

For the most part, former longtime Ethics Commission director John O'Donnell said, groups comply quickly when they receive a letter. But occasionally groups do not want to register because they fear it could compromise their nonprofit status, he said.

The law is intended to be broad, he said. "It has a tendency to catch the guppies along with the sharks," he said.

Asked about a stigma attached to lobbying, O'Donnell chuckled.

"The truth is everyone has a lobbyist," he said. "It is not bad to be a lobbyist because there is not anyone on earth who doesn't have one."

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