Friday, July 01, 2005

Advance America's Lobbying Reports Belie The Extent of Its Lobbying Activities

Advance America’s declared nonpartisan, tax-exempt purpose is “education”, but an analysis of lobbyist reports filed by the organization with the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission disclose that it lobbies the legislature on a wide variety of issues unrelated to its “education” purpose. The reports, like the organization’s federal tax returns, also seem to grossly understate the extent of its lobbying activities. Advance America’s lobbyist reports were prepared by its founder Eric Miller, except for the period covering 2004 when Miller stepped down from his position as the organization’s high paid executive director to pursue his bid to become the Republican gubernatorial nominee in the May, 2004 primary, which he lost to Governor Mitch Daniels.

Individuals, businesses and organizations which seek to influence the Indiana General Assembly are required to annually register as either an employer lobbyist or a compensated lobbyist with the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In addition, registered lobbyists are required to file activity reports semi-annually detailing the amount of their lobbying expenditures during a reporting period. Violations of the Lobby Law are a Class D felony, which includes knowingly or intentionally making a false report that understates the amount of lobbying expenditures. Also, the Commission has authority to impose civil monetary damages for certain offenses. Eric Miller had been the only lobbyist registered on behalf of the organization until he stepped down to pursue his personal bid to become governor in 2004. Dwight Williams, who succeeded Miller as the organization’s executive director, registered to lobby on behalf of Advance America in 2004. Both Williams and Miller have registered in 2005 to lobby for the organization.

All lobbyists are required to annually register and disclose the subject matter of their lobbying activities. Advance America, an educational non-profit organization, identified “education” as but one of the many issues on which it lobbies. It identifies more than two dozen diverse issues on which it lobbies, including AIDS, alcoholic beverages, banking, budget, civil justice, commerce, finance, gaming, insurance, judiciary, labor, property tax, real estate and reproductive rights among others. The reports underscore the expansive reach of the organization's lobbying activities.

All lobbyists are required to report all lobbying expenditures made during each legislative calendar year by filing activity reports semi-annually. “Lobbying” is defined as “communicating by any means, or paying others to communicate by any means, with any legislative official with the purpose of influencing any legislative action.” Lobbying expenditures include: compensation paid to others to lobby; reimbursements to other who perform lobbying on your behalf; receptions for legislators; entertainment, including meals (unless the entire General Assembly is invited; gifts; and any other expenditures made for lobbying purposes. It does not include overhead costs, postage, express mail, faxes, telephone calls, support staff for lobbyists, office rental and personal expenses of the lobbyist. It would include any expenses the organization incurs in drafting legislation, meeting with legislators, testifying before committees and otherwise in communicating with legislators to influence legislative action. Certainly, any expenses Advance America incurred in connection with its high production rally in support of SJR 7, the constitutional ban on same sex marriages and civil unions, at the State House earlier this year would have been a reportable expenditure.

During the period of 2000 through the first reporting period of 2005, Advance America reported spending a total of $151,707.89 for lobbying the Indiana General Assembly. Federal lobbying reporting requirements under the Internal Revenue Code are more expansive than the state lobbying reporting requirements, which apply only to expenditures made to lobby the state legislative branch. Oddly, the organization reported just $3,855.67 in expenditures in 2004 while Miller was running for Governor and the gay marriage debate was raging in the Indiana House of Representatives. In the most recent reporting period covering the just completed 2005 legislative session during which Advance America successfully lobbied for several measures, including the constitutional ban on same sex marriages and civil unions, the organization reported total expenditures of just $28,093.07. Its annual lobbying expenditures range from as little as 3% of its total annual expenditures to as much as 7%. Its expenditures by year were as follows:

2000 $23,862.00
2001 $38,397.82
2002 $34,420.18
2003 $23,079.15
2004 $ 3,855.67
2005 $28,093.07

As an employer lobbyist, Advance America is required to disclose the amount of compensation paid to its employees or others for lobbying. While Miller earned a six-figure income as executive director of Advance America, it reported very small sums in annual paid lobbying compensation. The organization reported spending $11,437.94 for paid compensation in 2000, $13,297.43 in 2001, $13,079.90 in 2002, $4,028.35 in 2003 and only $1,417.86 in 2004. During the just completed legislative session, the organization’s report showed a mere $3,345.00 was spent by the organization for paid compensation for lobbying.

According to a Lobby Registration Commission advisory opinion, employer lobbyists are required to report not only compensation paid to its employees for lobbying but also vested employee benefits and fringe benefits such as a company car. An employer lobbyist is required to report a pro-rata portion of the compensated employee’s salary based upon the amount of time he spends lobbying according to commission advisory opinions. For example, if 50% of an employee’s time is devoted to lobbying activities, then 50% of the amount of his annual pay should be reported as paid compensation, plus 50% of any vested employee benefit or fringe benefit. Advance Indiana’s analysis of Advance America’s lobbying reports reveals that the organization has reported well under 10% of Eric Miller’s actual annual pay and benefits as paid compensation, which typically were well above $100,000. As we have previously reported, the overarching activity of Advance America is to pursue its Christian fundamentalist legislative agenda; any educational activities are merely incidental to the lobbying work it performs on behalf of its causes. As the organization’s only registered lobbyist during most of the period analyzed, it is inconceivable that Miller spent less than 10% of his time on lobbying matters while working for the organization.

The organization spent very little on entertainment, receptions or gifts for legislators. All remaining expenditures fall into a catchall category called “other expenditures”. The amount of “other expenditures” reported by the organization are seemingly trivial, given the organization’s strong presence at the State House. It reported “other lobbying” expenditures of $14,316.30 in 2001, $21,149.20 in 2002, $18,950.80 in 2003, $1,955.13 in 2004 and $24,336.20 in the first reporting period for 2005. The small amount of expenditures reported by Advance America in 2004, $1,955.13, is particularly incredible given the organization’s full court press during the 2004 session to pressure then-Speaker Pat Bauer to hear its proposed amendment to the Indiana Constitution banning same sex marriages and civil unions. A great deal of Advance America’s activities involve grassroots lobbying, which is a little grayer area of the lobbying law. Unless Advance America’s grassroots efforts result in directly connecting a member of the public to a legislator, the activity is not reportable. It is not clear if Advance America’s grassroots activities reach this threshold.

Eric Miller also filed activity reports during the period analyzed, except for the period he stepped down as Advance America’s executive director to run for governor. Miller typically reported no lobbying expenditures other than trivial amounts for meals or an occasional gift. Typically, compensated lobbyists do not incur lobbying expenditures; they are borne by the employer lobbyist, which in Miller’s case is Advance America.

Advance Indiana’s analysis of Advance America’s lobbying reports are further evidence of the organization’s efforts to skirt federal and state public disclosure and reporting laws to protect its non-profit status. It also beckons for a full investigation of the organization and its founder, Eric Miller. The taxpayers have a right to know whether Miller and Advance America are unlawfully benefiting as a tax-subsidized organization. These so-called exemplars of moral righteousness are duty-bound to abide by our federal and state laws as much as anyone else. If Miller and Advance America believe they are in compliance with federal and state laws, then they should have no problem opening their books up to public inspection.

2 comments:

paula said...

I'm not very well versed on all this stuff. Do legislators have to report what lobbyists give them? If so, can that be cross referenced to compare what was reported by the legislators and what was reported by Sir Holier-Than-Thou?

If not, why not? I work for the state of Indiana and recently won a blackberry for attending a webinar. I'm still waiting on the ruling from the state ethics commission, but I am sure I won't be able to keep it. But all the politicians get to keep theirs, don't they. Sorry, did that sound bitter?

Advance Indiana said...

Paula,

Lobbyists have to specifically report any gifts to legislators that total more than $100 on a single day, or more than $500 for the year, on their lobbying reports. They still have to report gifts below these threshholds, but they don't have to specify the recipient. Legislators are required to report any gifts on their annual economic statement of interest as follows: the following: (a) any gift of cash from a lobbyist, (b) any single gift other than cash having a fair market value in excess of $100 or (c) any gifts other than cash having a fair market value in the aggregate in excess of $250.

It is perfectly legal for legislators to accept gifts from lobbyists and others. Mr. Miller is not known as a gift-giver-as such his reports do not reflect this. I agree with you that it is not fair that state employees are held to a much higher standard than legislators. Similar restrictions should apply to both, but don't expect that to happen any time soon.