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Lobbying's New Frontier: 'Not Lobbying'

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Brien Bonneville and Larry Mitchell have officially deserted the lobbying profession. Lobbyists have become too despised and stigmatized, are banned from certain government jobs and subject to all sorts of onerous disclosure requirements. Bonneville and Mitchell needed out.

So they rented space in their former K-Street lobbyshop, KSCW, and founded a new "non-lobbying entity" called K Street Research.

It's the newest trend in lobbying: "not lobbying."

Mitchell and Bonneville are so eager to ditch the "Scarlet L," in fact, that they'd rather be called, of all things, journalists. "Part of it is old-fashioned journalism, shoe leather," said Mitchell, describing how the firm will gather information about government doings for its clients.

"We're almost like a small newspaper," said Bonneville.

A very, very small newspaper, maybe, that only circulates to a few corporate clients -- each of whom gets a different edition.

And it's a secret newspaper at that. Mitchell said they've already got several clients, but he declined to identify them. That's his prerogative as a non-lobbyist, unencumbered by disclosure requirements. "We actually have some privacy," he said. "We don't have to tell you."

Bonneville describes himself as an admirer of Gerald Cassidy, the pioneering superlobbyist who made a fortune after inventing the first modern "earmarked appropriation." Bonneville said that after reading about him in Robert Kaiser's book "So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government," he knew he wanted to leave his mark.

What he and Mitchell saw when they surveyed the landscape was demand for services that are commonly considered part of lobbying -- as long as they don't carry the lobbyist stigma. They saw potential clients for lobbyish services who don't want to be seen cutting checks to lobbying firms.

"The new rhetoric [against K Street] has caused us to rethink where we want to be in our careers...We're embracing the need for change," said Bonneville. "We're not lobbying. We're doing policy research." The policy research might become part of clients' lobbying efforts, they said, though some are merely interested in following what happens on the Hill.

Mitchell, a former agriculture lobbyist who worked in the Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration, said the decline of the journalism industry has also helped to create the market for a firm that provides specialized information about government to corporate clients. "You're seeing the demise of newspapers as they've been falling like flies in rural America," he said. "The ones devoted to the farming industry, they're gone a long time ago."

The firm will also be providing advice to what you might call "traditional" lobbying firms on compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Bonneville, 24, has some expertise; he became his former firm's compliance officer after joining as an intern in 2007.

Mitchell and Bonneville told HuffPost they weren't really doing much lobbying to begin with at KSCW and were only registered out of caution. "We even registered our secretaries and receptionists because they'd be talking to elected officials," Mitchell said.

Open-government groups are skeptical of the new enterprise, to say the least.

"This is outrageous," wrote the Sunlight Foundation's John Wonderlich in a blog post. In an interview with HuffPost, Wonderlich said the firm appeared to be trying to take advantage of the fact that "there's not a very clear line between what's research and what's lobbying activity" in the disclosure laws.

"It's indicative of a larger trend among some lobbyists to occlude the lobbying activity that they're engaging in or the influence that they're trying to have on the political process," said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics. "This is definitely an effort to help private interests to navigate political channels to their benefit. Whether it's called lobbying in the traditional sense of lobbying or something else, the goal is similar if not the same."

Indeed, they join a number of other people doing what by any normal standard would be called lobbying but still finding ways to keep themselves unregistered. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, for one, is also in the "non-lobbying" lobbying business -- HuffPost calls it "influence laundering."

A person is required to register as a lobbyist if he spends more than 20 percent of his time working for a particular client doing "lobbying activity" and contacts government officials on the client's behalf more than once. The law defines lobbying activity as "lobbying contacts and efforts in support of such contacts, including preparation and planning activities, research and other background work that is intended, at the time it is performed, for use in contacts, and coordination with the lobbying activities of others."

Ethics lawyer Ken Gross told HuffPost that if any firm provides background information that's used as part of a lobbying effort -- even if it's someone else's lobbying effort -- that counts as lobbying activity.

"If Corporation XYZ hires Research Firm A to prepare materials to support the in-house lobbying of Corporation XYZ, the expenses are required to be reported by the corporation regardless of whether the research firm separately meets the requirement of a lobbying firm."

Gross says that if Research Firm A contacts more than one "covered government official" (congressional staffers and some executive branch officials) in the course of its research, then it crosses the threshold and must report its activity under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Bonneville and Mitchell said some of their research involves soliciting information from government officials, but the newly non-lobbyists remain confident they won't have to register.

"We have consulted with several lawyers and we're going to be pretty careful," said Bonneville.