The Abramoff probe could spur reforms

The high-profile investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public-relations consultant Michael Scanlon could lead lawmakers to reconsider lobbying disclosure laws or contemplate other reforms to curb similar abuses, according to a key senator.

“Clearly we need to act to prevent such occurrences from happening again,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is leading the investigation of how Abramoff and Scanlon convinced Indian tribes to pay them more than $80 million for gaming casino lobbying. McCain did not elaborate on specific reforms, citing ongoing hearings on the matter.

As Commerce Committee chairman, McCain has been an avid reformer of campaign-finance laws, which, like lobbying disclosure laws, address the influence of special interests in politics.

McCain was a leader of the 2002 effort to ban soft-money donations to political parties.

In January, McCain will leave the Commerce Committee and become chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, a traditionally low-profile panel that has generated headlines in recent months with its probe of Abramoff and Scanlon, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
The high-profile investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public-relations consultant Michael Scanlon could lead lawmakers to reconsider lobbying disclosure laws or contemplate other reforms to curb similar abuses, according to a key senator.

“Clearly we need to act to prevent such occurrences from happening again,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is leading the investigation of how Abramoff and Scanlon convinced Indian tribes to pay them more than $80 million for gaming casino lobbying. McCain did not elaborate on specific reforms, citing ongoing hearings on the matter.

As Commerce Committee chairman, McCain has been an avid reformer of campaign-finance laws, which, like lobbying disclosure laws, address the influence of special interests in politics.

McCain was a leader of the 2002 effort to ban soft-money donations to political parties.

In January, McCain will leave the Commerce Committee and become chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, a traditionally low-profile panel that has generated headlines in recent months with its probe of Abramoff and Scanlon, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
 
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McCain has said he plans to hold more hearings next year, which could create a drumbeat for reform of lobbying laws.

The Abramoff investigation has revealed a number of loopholes in current lobbying disclosure requirements, watchdog groups said.

In one instance in 2002, Abramoff offered to work pro bono for the Tigua tribe of Texas to avoid registering as a lobbyist with authorities in the House and Senate, according to testimony at an Indian Affairs Committee hearing last week.

To receive compensation for his work, he urged the tribe to hire his associate, Scanlon, to do grassroots lobbying, which is omitted in current disclosure requirements. Scanlon gave Abramoff a cut of the $4.2 million he was paid by the Tigua for these services, according to testimony.

Lawmakers at the hearing contended that Abramoff did not want to disclose his relationship with the Tigua Indians because months earlier he had pressed for their casino, and other Texas Indian casinos, to be closed.

“Lobbying disclosures should be extended to include grassroots lobbying,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen’s CongressWatch. “Had [Abramoff and his associates] been required to disclose grassroots lobbying, people would have discovered that Abramoff was behind the … effort to undercut Indian casinos. They would have realized that he was working both sides of the issue.”

Celia Wexler at Common Cause agreed. “There is a huge problem with disclosure that exists beyond this particular terrible example of how lobbying can prey on people. We definitely need a system that is serious about disclosure,” she said.

Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), who led the push for campaign-finance reform with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), has proposed legislation to curb lobbying abuses. The Democracy in Congress Act would require paid lobbyists to disclose grassroots lobbying and would require lobbying coalitions to list their members.

Wexler said campaign finance and lobbying are closely related. “If you’re engaged on campaign reform, it’s difficult not to be well aware of lobbying because campaign contributions and lobbying go hand in hand. I’m sure [McCain] understands the symbiosis.”

The Lobbying Disclosure Act, which governs what lobbyists disclose about their activities, has not changed significantly since it was passed in 1995. Lobbyists are required to file reports with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House of Representatives when they are hired and twice a year thereafter.

The Abramoff probe has also exposed problems in enforcement of disclosure requirements. Reports that Abramoff filed with the Senate at times included incorrect addresses for his clients.

Congressional authorities typically do not verify information in the reports, and they rarely bring enforcement actions.

“You could have a whole army of red flags marching into the secretary of the Senate’s office and nothing would happen,”