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Bombshell: Ethics office alleges illegal lobbying

The Office of Congressional Ethics has for the first time accused an entity of lobbying Congress illegally.

The complaint has been referred to the Justice Department, which enforces the Lobbying Disclosure Act, but few other details are available.

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The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) operates mostly in secrecy. It does issue a quarterly report that summarizes the cases it has taken. At the end of the most recent report — which covers April through June — the office noted it had “voted to refer one entity to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for failure to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.”

Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a partner at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, said the office must have found significant evidence of wrongdoing in order to make the referral.

“Because the [disclosure] law does not require time-sheets or other supporting documentation, one would have to assume that OCE has something pretty substantial to justify them taking the extraordinary step of making a referral.”

Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, told The Hill that this is the first time the office, which typically handles congressional misconduct, has taken such an action.

“I'm very pleased to see it. One of the issues in lobbying disclosure is the lack of enforcement,” she said. “It's very clear that the [Lobbying Disclosure Act] is seen as a burdensome paper exercise.”

The case was first unearthed by Covington & Burling lawyer Robert Kelner, who called the move “a big deal” in a post Friday on his firm’s policy blog.

“Until now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia has focused exclusively — and rarely — on bringing cases against registered lobbyists who fail to timely file reports,” Kelner wrote.

Some lobbyists and public interest advocates have criticized the ease with which people can get away with skirting the lobbying registration laws. They blame limited staff and funding at the office within the Justice Department that oversees lobbying reports.

The number of registered lobbyists has plummeted since 2009, after President Obama began limiting lobbyists’ access to the White House and two years after Congress put in place sweeping ethics reforms.

In 2007, there were nearly 14,840 registered lobbyists, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. By 2013, that number had dropped to about 12,340.

Registering as a lobbyist is required when a person spends more than 20 percent of his or her time advocating for a client before Congress and certain members of the executive branch.

“There are some cases that are clear as day, where registration should be required. But there are other cases that may be more borderline — if you spend 19 percent of your time versus 21 percent of your time,” Rosenstein said.

McGehee said the case proves the value of the OCE, which Congress created in 2008.

“This is the ongoing proof, if you will, that OCE is doing its job and playing a constructive rule. They're dismissing claims if they don't have merit, there's a misimpression that they're going after everyone,” she said. “When they do make a move, it really helps to show that there is obviously something egregiously wrong.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics was not able to comment on the matter.