Newt Gingrich, a presidential candidate, was paid $300,000 in 2006 by government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
Does that make Gingrich (pictured, right), a former Congressman from Georgia and Speaker of the House, a lobbyist?
When Gingrich’s Republican opponents attempted to say it did, Gingrich rejected that idea and instead said he’d been paid for his “advice as an historian.” His explanation drew criticism from observers, including Politico’s Ben Smith, who wrote that Gingrich was making the most of the gray area between registered lobbyists and those who, by the legal definition, engage in lobbying.
The thin-line distinction of lobbyist-or-not also leads to controversy in state government. One recent example from Arizona’s contested redistricting process shows how some groups manage to wield influence while still avoiding the increased disclosure and scrutiny that lobbyists face.
In August, libertarian activist Jim March filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office, claiming that a group connected to Republican officials was lobbying the redistricting board without registering itself. The group, FAIR Trust Inc., claimed it was only instructing the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) to follow the state constitution and the provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
Just days later, the Arizona Secretary of State ruled FAIR Trust Inc. was not lobbying, according to the state definition, which includes only attempts to support or oppose legislation “by directly communicating with any legislator.” As the IRC is, in theory, a nonpartisan board, FAIR Trust’s efforts to influence the redistricting process didn’t meet the standard.
Because FAIR Trust fell outside the regulations for lobbyists, it was able to hide the identities of its financial backers and how much it was collecting, as well as basic information like who was running the group. Only an e-mail obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times shed light on the group and its powerful connection to partisan politics.
The e-mail, which was an invitation to a conference call, had been authored by Republican operative Steve Twist and was sent to top staffers for Arizona Republicans in Congress and the state legislature; it was also sent to two attorneys working for FAIR Trust. U.S. Rep. Trent Franks told the Capitol Times that Twist was running FAIR Trust, though Twist refused to comment on the matter.
Eventually, FAIR Trust Inc. did register as a lobbying organization, but a spokesman claimed it did so only to allow one of its attorneys to testify in front of a legislative redistricting panel. Because FAIR Trust’s lobbying activity was so limited, the group’s leadership and financial backers remain unknown: Under state law, the group would only need to disclose its expenses related to that attorney’s testimony.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s office expressed disappointment at the group’s exemption from state lobbying rules. According to the response to March’s initial complaint, the Secretary of State’s office “believes that the public interest would be better served” if groups seeking to influence the redistricting commission were forced to register as lobbyists, adding that the office might propose a change to the statute in the next legislature.