12/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Shining Light On County Lobbyists

UPDATE: The Lobbyist Sunshine Initiative passed the finance committee unanimously on Thursday. It goes to a full vote at the Board's Oct. 6 meeting.

When Cook County commissioners vote to award a contract or approve legislation, they often have little or no idea what lobbyists worked on it or on whose behalf.

Under a package of new transparency measures being introduced at the Board's finance committee meeting Thursday, that all may change.

The Lobbyist Sunshine Initiative would force lobbyists to report more quickly and in explicit detail who their clients are, what their clients want from the county and who they are actually lobbying to get it done. That information would then be placed online and printed on the Board agenda on the day the item comes up for a vote.

"The whole thing about lobbying is making clear who's doing it and for what," Commissioner Bridget Gainer (D-10th), the initiative's sponsor and a former lobbyist herself, told the Huffington Post. "We're not trying to outlaw lobbying, just make it fair and open."

As part of the plan, lobbyists would have to disclose new contracts within 48 hours of receiving them or face stiff fees. The plan also prohibits anyone who worked for or was elected to county office from lobbying for a year after they stop working or their term ends.

The impetus for the new initiatives came from Cook County Clerk David Orr's office. As clerk, Orr keeps all the records that lobbyists must currently file -- by mail -- twice a year listing their clients, compensation and expenditures.

The public sees these records, which get stowed away in a filing cabinet, only if they know to ask for them, and even if they do, some of the reports are filled out either incompletely or so vaguely as to be meaningless.

On the county lobbyist registration form, on the line labeled, "Brief description of county matter involved," some lobbyists write masterworks of obfuscation along the lines of "lobby county commissioners on county business" -- or nothing at all.

Since they must only file twice a year, lobbyists can be retained to work on a contract or piece of legislation and not have to report doing so until well after the contract has been awarded or the legislation finalized.

Orr said his office looked into the 25 biggest county contracts of last year and could find only one that had a lobbyist listed in connection to it.

"We are just not convinced we are getting all the information we should," Orr told the Huffington Post. "Knowing politics the way I do, with $5 million, $6 million, $7 million contracts not having a lobbyist listed, something's missing."

In developing the proposals, Orr said his office borrowed from the state of Wisconsin, which keeps a trove of information about lobbyists in a easily searchable online database.

That database allows the public, the press and anyone else who might be curious to look up by agency, county, keyword, lobbyist or legislation and see in gritty detail who was involved and how.

"It's unique in that it provides almost real-time information to the public about who and what groups are interested in what legislation," Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, told the Huffington Post. "In a lot of places you don't find out at all, or you might not find out until the legislative session is over or even six months after that."

Wisconsin formed the non-partisan accountability board in 2007 by merging the state ethics and election boards. Its lobbying database has been online since 1997, as well as a detailed database on campaign finance information.

The key to the Wisconsin database is the real-time reporting of lobbyist activities, said Jonathan Becker, head of the Ethics and Accountability Division.

"If you don't require that," Becker said, "it's all sort of retrospective, and you can't influence public policy as well. Knowing in real-time who's working on what allows people to respond."

Wisconsin law, however, does not require lobbyists to report on contracts they lobby for, a major limitation and the biggest difference between what Wisconsin does and the Cook County proposal would mandate.

Neither Orr nor Gainer said they have a smoking gun instance of a lobbyist working on a contract without reporting so, but both said the paucity of information makes it almost impossible to uncover foul play.

"It's like a Black Swan," Gainer said. "It's hard to prove it's out there if you can never see it."

If the proposal gets out of committee it will go to a vote of the whole Board as early as next week. Should it pass into law, Orr said his office can have the online database ready for the second reporting period, in the summer of 2010.

Almost all of the commissioners have expressed their support for the proposal, Gainer said, including Board President Todd Stroger.

"We've talked a couple of times and he seems to think it's a good idea," Gainer said. "I don't think he'll veto it."

A Stroger representative declined to comment.

The timing of the proposal, just months before the commissioners and the board president face re-election, was no accident Orr said.

"There's been a lot of beating up of Cook County in the last couple of years in the press," Orr said. "There's a big election in February and a very wild board president race, where the incumbent may be the weakest. The political conditions are ripe."