Providence, Rhode Island – Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea today announced legislation that will strengthen, clarify and increase the transparency of Rhode Island's lobbying laws. Secretary Gorbea's comprehensive approach is contained in bills (H-6178, S-904) introduced on her behalf by Representative Robert B. Jacquard (D-Cranston) and Senator Erin P. Lynch (D-Warwick).
The Lobbying Reform Act of 2015 would replace existing legislative- and executive-branch lobbying laws with a single comprehensive statute that strengthens, clarifies and ensures transparency around lobbying. Currently, Rhode Island has two separate laws for executive and legislative lobbying, each with their own set of definitions, procedures and reporting requirements. Among the deficiencies identified in the current laws are:
• Lack of administrative subpoena power making it impossible to conduct a proper investigation for the rare case in which someone brazenly violates the current law. Other state agencies, including the Department of Business Regulation and the Department of Environmental Management, currently have this tool. • Lack clarity in order to ensure compliance and enforcement. • Penalties that do little to deter violations and have minimal impact.
"Our currently lobbying laws are confusing. The Lobbying Reform Act of 2015 provides the tools necessary to ensure that lobbying is properly and transparently regulated, that laws are taken seriously, and that violations are dealt with decisively," Gorbea said.
Provisions include: • Clarifying the definitions of lobbyist and lobbying. • Providing a solid framework for investigations and hearings. • Authorizing administrative subpoena power in the course of conducting investigations, bringing the Department of State in line with standard practices currently used by other state agencies such as Department of Business Regulations and Department of Environmental Management. • Strengthening and simplifies lobbying reporting guidelines for those involved while making it easier for the general public to access these reports and understand the information being reported. • Increasing maximum penalties for non-compliance to more than double the current amounts.
Secretary Gorbea's legislation was developed with input from a Lobbying Advisory Task Force convened in March, which included a diverse group of experts and citizen advocates. The task force met with Secretary Gorbea on four occasions.
"We worked with Secretary Gorbea to review the existing laws, to find out what works and what doesn't, and to look at best practices in other states," said Greg Mancini, a Providence-based attorney and lobbyist who served on the ten-member task force.
Gorbea also announced today that the Department of State has completed its review of, and taken action in response to, Superior Court appeals filed by Michael Corso and Thomas Zaccagnino in January. Last year, then-Secretary of State Ralph Mollis adopted a hearing officer's findings that both Corso and Zaccagnino had failed to report their lobbying activity on behalf of 38 Studios. Mollis ordered them to file retroactive reports or face a $2,000 fine.
Upon taking office on January 6, Secretary Gorbea hired Providence lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente to conduct an in-depth review of both cases.
"After a careful review of both matters, we concluded that both orders were likely to be overturned by the Superior Court, due to multiple procedural deficiencies in the existing lobbying statutes. And even if the orders were upheld, the maximum penalties prescribed by the statutes are trivial," Corrente said. "It made little sense to spend taxpayer dollars on protracted litigation that was unlikely to accomplish any meaningful result.
As a result, the Department of State has vacated the orders and dismissed both cases.
"I know that many Rhode Islanders share my frustration. But it is important for us to move from frustration to solutions," said Gorbea. "This is why I have focused my efforts on overhauling the state's lobbying laws. Our business community, our advocates and our citizens are looking for easy-to-follow rules that are enforced and that provide a level playing field which encourages investor confidence."
"Rhode Island needs to be known nationally as a place that values transparency and effective government," Gorbea added. "This is critically important for economic development."