Category Archives: Lobbying

Coalition for Smarter Growth Lobbyist Didn’t Comply with County Ethics Law

Lobbying laws? What lobbying laws?

Jane Lyons, a lobbyist for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, failed to register as a lobbyist during 2020 despite conducting paid lobbying activities on behalf of the organization.

The evidence appears on the Montgomery County Ethics Commission website. Timestamps on the reports reveal that they were not submitted until the end of July 2021, well after the filing deadline.

Jan 1-June 30, 2020 Report Timestamp
July 1-Dec 30, 2020 Report Timestamp

But she need not worry. It turns out that Montgomery County’s lobbying laws have no teeth. According to Robert Cobb, Staff Director and Chief Counsel of the County Ethics Commission, there is no real penalty for failing to register or to report earnings:

Typically, we will have no idea if a registration is made late because we normally do not have insight as to when (or even if) the criteria for registration has been met. If someone registers for a prior year, that is likely to suggest non-compliance with the lobbying requirements. We have not sought to penalize entities when they subsequently register after having been notified by the Commission of registration requirements.  We have emphasized obtaining compliance.

Cobb goes on to explain why they do not enforce penalties:

[A] program of aggressive seeking of penalties for non-compliance would affect the non-profit communities the most.  Non-profit enterprises occasionally engage in lobbying activity and trip the registration requirements without registering.  This may be a consequence of inadvertence or lack of sophistication in meeting regulatory requirements.  Nonetheless, we have again focused on obtaining compliance rather than instituting punitive measures.

Except that Lyons cannot plead ignorance of the law because she had filed reports in 2019 when she had also acted as a paid lobbyist.

From the way Cobb tells it, lobbyists have little to fear:

In theory there could be a situation where an entity repeatedly fails to register and is intransigent towards efforts to obtain compliance that Commission staff or the Ethics Commission itself believes warrants further action including imposition of a penalty.  This would require compelling evidence of noncompliance and persistent reluctance to register.

In other words, the Commission doesn’t even engage in public sanction for failure to comply, let alone impose a meaningful monetary penalty. If lobbyists like Lyons who clearly know better can avoid even the slightest sanction by filing whenever, it is hard to see how public interest in knowing who is being paid to lobby in a timely fashion is being served.

Ethics, schmethics.

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M-NCPPC Violating Ethics Laws and its own Lobbying Policy

Maryland Public Ethics Law mandates that the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), a bi-county agency which includes the Montgomery and Prince George’s Planning Boards and other departments, require disclosure by lobbyists.

Towards that end, M-NCPPC adopted a policy on lobbying disclosure in 1983, which was amended in 1985. The policy requires lobbyists to register with M-NCPPC and to file a report annually with the Commission. Paid lobbyists should be reporting expenditures on meals, entertainment and gifts to Commissioners or their employees in addition to their compensation and monies spent on lobbying materials and research subject to certain regulations and thresholds.

The current Commission does none of this.

That means that lobbyists before the Planning Boards, which handle decisions with incredible monetary impact, aren’t registering or filing reports. A recent evaluation in by the Office of the General Counsel in response to a citizen complaint, reveals that even the old policy doesn’t fully comply with current law.

You can read M-NCPPC’s Office of the General Counsel’s recent report and review the 1985 policy below. Even their own counsel says that M-NCPPC is way out of compliance: “no lobbying registrations had apparently been filed in recent memory.”

Montgomery and Prince George’s need to wake up. Montgomery has always prided itself on being a squeaky-clean reform county, but its own Planning Board has failed to enforce any of its own or Maryland’s ethics requirements even though its decisions and recommendations can provide many millions in benefits to people invested and involved in property development.

This raises serious questions. Why hasn’t the Commission or either Planning Board done anything to enforce ethics regulations related to lobbying? Why has Planning Board Staff failed to carry out the Board’s adopted policy? Why didn’t the Office of the General Counsel make sure that M-NCPPC was in compliance up until now?

At the end of its report, the Office of the General Council states:

OGC recommends that the Commission promptly complete the process for a substantial overhaul of its lobbying regulations. The Commission’s executive team has made a commitment to revise and adopt new, clarifying lobbying regulations before the end of the 2021 calendar year, and to launch an energetic campaign of public education to introduce them after adoption.

None of that has happened.

The report was supposed to be discussed finally at the December 2021 M-NCPPC Board meeting but was yanked from the agenda at the last minute. In other words, M-NCPPC has already failed to honor its “commitment” to clean up this ethics mess by the end of 2021.

The Montgomery and Prince George’s County Councils, which fund and appoint each county’s Planning Board, need to investigate quickly and ensure that a new, cleaner regime arrives at the Planning Board’s new Wheaton headquarters with officials and planners willing to abide by and to enforce the law.

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Just Say No to E-Cig Lobbyists

Late last month, I received the following note from Raymond Glendening, the CEO of Scarlet Oak Strategies lobbying firm:

I hope you’re well.  I wanted to reach out for an idea for Seventh State.  As you likely know, the e-cig industry is currently being regulated by the FDA and there is looming regulations coming out of Annapolis (21 bill) and Baltimore City (flavor ban).

We are reaching out to see if you have interest in interviewing the vaping industry’s national spokesperson, David Pasch, on one of your talk shows.

We want to help balance the coverage, as there is considerable evidence that vaping products and e-cigarettes are among the most useful tools to help adult smokers’ quit traditional cigarettes, as noted in this recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine.

This new tax would make it harder for adults to gain access to these life changing products which are not only 95% safer than combustible cigarettes, they have been proven nearly twice as effective as other nicotine replacement products – like patches and gum – at helping adults quit smoking.

David Pasch, a spokesperson for Voices for Vaping, is available to further discuss the impact this tax would have, especially for adults seeking alternatives to smoking. David previously served in a senior communications role at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, as a Communications Director in the House of Representatives, and for various non-profit organizations active in the healthcare and public health space. 

Maryland became one of the first states to ban smoking in indoor workplaces in the country under the leadership of the then-Gov. Parris Glendening, Raymond’s father. While e-cigs may help smokers quit, they have also proven to be quite the gateway drug for teenagers, who are more likely to take up smoking if they used e-cigs. Of course, there is nothing healthy about e-cigs, which contain nicotine and formaldehyde among other noxious chemicals.

Trump Cheerleader David Pasch is one heck of a choice of a representative for this industry, as Politico reported:

David Pasch, who ran HHS’ digital communications until this month, regularly parked his car — with “FAKENWS” vanity license plates — outside agency headquarters.

This Trump hack ought who went from HHS to advocating for the tobacco industrial complex ought to be a real hit on State Circle. Of course, it helps to have the son of a former Democratic governor paving the way

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Leventhal Blasts the Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time

By Adam Pagnucco.

On the evening of October 20, a representative of Clark Enterprises (Bob Eisenberg) appeared before the Montgomery County Council to testify on the Downtown Bethesda Master Plan.  Clark has been involved in a dispute with its next-door neighbor, fellow developer Brookfield Properties, over Brookfield’s plan to erect a new building on top of the Bethesda Metro Station.  Clark hired PR firm KOFA Public Affairs to wage a campaign to block the new building that accused Council Members of being tools of developers and criticized their salaries.  Accordingly, we labeled it “The Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time” since even dimwitted lobbyists understand that elected officials don’t respond well to attacks on their integrity.

Above is the reaction of Council Member George Leventhal to KOFA’s insult-laden campaign.  Hide the children, folks!

 

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Is This the Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Suppose you want to persuade an elected official to vote in a certain way.  Which of the following tactics would you choose?

  1. Prepare the best case on the merits of the issue that you can.
  1. Mobilize a large part of the public to agree with you.
  1. Insult the elected official’s integrity and criticize his or her salary.

If you picked Tactic 3, congratulations!  You could get hired by one of Maryland’s top PR firms to run the Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time!

What is this campaign, you ask?  It involves a Battle of Developers in Downtown Bethesda.  (Ring the bell, folks!)  On one side is Clark Enterprises, one of the nation’s largest real estate and construction firms that is headquartered at Bethesda Metro Center.  On the other side is Brookfield Properties, another giant real estate firm based in New York and Toronto, which bought 3 Bethesda Metro Center for $150 million in 2011.  Brookfield would like to place a new high-rise on the concrete Bethesda Metro plaza and the Planning Board agreed to it in its proposal for the area’s new master plan.  Clark, whose existing building would be right next door to Brookfield’s new building, opposes it.

The Montgomery County Council has final say over all master plans, and so Clark paid for a grass-roots lobbying campaign.  A website proclaiming a need to “Protect Bethesda Open Space” was registered in May and emails from constituents started arriving in council inboxes.  While the emails varied a bit in content, the following two sentences appeared word-for-word in a great many of them.

“The County Council has sided with the developers one too many times here in our recent history.”

“After recent raises to our taxes and to your salaries, we ask that the same priority be given to the people who live and work in downtown Bethesda.”

picard-face-palm

Your author has worked for and with elected officials for a long time.  There are many differences among them.  But one thing absolutely every single one of them HATES is to be called a tool.  The only thing worse is to get hundreds of their constituents to call them tools.  You may as well burn down their houses, vandalize their cars, loot their bank accounts and then ask them to give you a vote.  See how that works for you!

And on top of that, is it really wise for a campaign financed by a real estate company to encourage residents to criticize Council Members for siding with developers?  What will those residents say the next time Clark wants to build something?

But Clark is only the client.  They hired someone to run the campaign for them.  One clue appears in this notice listing a certain Bassam Tarbush as a contact for the website.  Tarbush is also named in the campaign’s response emails.  According to his Linkedin profile, Tarbush is employed by KOFA Public Affairs, one of Maryland’s most prominent public relations firms.  That is astounding for two reasons.

  1. KOFA’s principals, who are regarded as professional and competent in Maryland’s political circles, have lots of experience working for elected officials. They include senior aides to former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin. If anyone understands how outraged elected officials can get when their integrity is impugned, these people do.
  1. The firm’s roots are deeply planted in the Democratic Party. Its principals have devoted substantial parts of their careers to helping Democrats like O’Malley and Cardin succeed. And yet, here is a group of Democratic operatives running a campaign that depicts Democratic elected officials as tools of developers.

Clark Enterprises is a well-respected real estate firm that has other priorities here in addition to what happens at Bethesda Metro Center.  Burning its bridges with the County Council through such a ham-handed lobbying campaign goes against its long-term interests.  For its own sake, Clark should go back to the drawing board, figure out a different message, hire someone else to implement it and end The Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time.

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