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SoS reports few problems in multi-million dollar industry

Short of buying a public official a cup of coffee, nearly all other expenses totaling more than $200 in a calendar year to influence decision-making by legislative and executive bodies, and boards and commissions, including boards of supervisors, must be reported to the Mississippi Secretary of State.

That includes detailed reports reflecting gifts, travel, lodging, entertainment and other expenses spent by the state’s 773 registered lobbyists.

“The people of Mississippi need to know who’s trying to influence government, either by lobbying or by campaign finance or whatever means,” said Secretary of State Eric Clark. “Our law is based on disclosure, and if the information is available, the citizens can make up their own minds whether they like it or not. All the information we collect is immediately placed on our Web site (www.sos.state.ms.us) so that any citizen in the biggest city or smallest town can access it from their personal computer or public library. If your representative or senator is being wined and dined every night at some expensive restaurant by a special interest group, if you like it, fine. If you don’t, you can tell him. But disclosure is crucially important in a democratic society.”

As a result of the Lobbying Law Reform Act of 1994, lobbyist registration ($25 fee) is required each year, with mandatory expenditure reports due legislative mid-session and end-of-session, and annual reports ending December 31. Lobbyists and their clients must sign the reports.

Judges are exempt from the Mississippi lobbying law. Other exemptions: elected officials acting in an official capacity, individuals representing only himself, and those receiving no compensation for lobbying. As a general rule, the Secretary of State’s Office does not regard action taken by community economic development agencies on behalf of economic development projects as subject to the lobbying law.

“We try very hard to be user-friendly, and we have forms on our Web site with detailed instructions,” said Clark. “We walk people through the process. In all aspects of our office, we don’t play ‘gotcha!’ We don’t try to trip people into making a mistake. I’d 100 times rather help people comply with the law and stay out of trouble than catch them in a mistake and in trouble. We try very hard to make people understand what the rules are, to make it easy to follow the rules, and the system works smoothly.”

Civil penalties of $50 per day are assessed if lobbying reports are filed after the statutory nine-day grace period following the deadline date. More serious concerns, such as criminal violation of the law or misrepresentation, are deferred to the state attorney general for criminal enforcement.

“A few years ago, (then) Attorney General Mike Moore and I had a real hard sit-down meeting with lobbyists, some of whom we suspected might be pushing the envelope or skirting the law,” said Clark. “We’d heard anecdotal reports of lobbyists seen taking public officials to dinner but not showing it on reports. We very clearly explained the law and that they were obliged to follow it and were subject to criminal sanctions if they didn’t, and that seemed to tighten things up a bit.”

Lobbyist Hayes Dent of Southern Strategy Group said Mississippi has a good regulatory atmosphere.

“I’m never one to say we need more regulation,” he said. “However, it’s very important for people to play by the rules. We all operate in the public environment, and disclosure takes away that mysterious veil that people may try to use against the lobbying trade.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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