Lobbyists, Bearing Gifts, Pursue Attorneys General

Eric Lipton, Lobbyists, Bearing Gifts, Pursue Attorneys General. The New York Times, 28 October 2014. “Attorneys general are now the object of aggressive pursuit by lobbyists and lawyers who use campaign contributions, personal appeals at lavish corporate-sponsored conferences and other means to push them to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements or pressure federal regulators, an investigation by The New York Times has found.”

Courting Favor: ‘The People’s Lawyers.’ Articles in this series examine the explosion in lobbying of state attorneys general by corporate interests and the millions in campaign donations they now provide.” Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

A robust industry of lobbyists and lawyers has blossomed as attorneys general have joined to conduct multistate investigations and pushed into areas as diverse as securities fraud and Internet crimes.

But unlike the lobbying rules covering other elected officials, there are few revolving-door restrictions or disclosure requirements governing state attorneys general, who serve as “the people’s lawyers” by protecting consumers and individual citizens.

A result is that the routine lobbying and deal-making occur largely out of view. But the extent of the cause and effect is laid bare in The Times’s review of more than 6,000 emails obtained through open records laws in more than two dozen states, interviews with dozens of participants in cases and attendance at several conferences where corporate representatives had easy access to attorneys general….

Emails obtained from more than 20 states reveal a level of lobbying by representatives of private interests that had been more typical with lawmakers than with attorneys general.

“The current and increasing level of the lobbying of attorneys general creates, at the minimum, the appearance of undue influence, and is therefore unseemly,” said James E. Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine, who now runs a program at Columbia University that studies state attorneys general. “It is undermining the credibility of the office of attorney general.”…

“An attorney general is entrusted with the power to decide which lawsuits to file and how to settle them, and they have great discretion in their work,” said Anthony Johnstone, a former assistant attorney general in Montana. “It’s vitally important that people can trust that those judgments are not subject to undue influence because of outside forces. And from what I have seen in recent years, I am concerned and troubled that those forces have intensified.”…

The increased focus on state attorneys general by corporate interests has a simple explanation: to guard against legal exposure, potentially in the billions of dollars, for corporations that become targets of the state investigations.

It can be traced back two decades, when more than 40 state attorneys general joined to challenge the tobacco industry, an inquiry that resulted in a historic $206 billion settlement.

Microsoft became the target of a similar multistate attack, accused of engaging in an anticompetitive scheme by bundling its Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system. Then came the pharmaceutical industry, accused of improperly marketing drugs, and, more recently, the financial services industry, in a case that resulted in a $25 billion settlement in 2012 with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicing companies.

The trend accelerated as attorneys general — particularly Democrats — began hiring outside law firms to conduct investigations and sue corporations on a contingency basis.

The widening scope of their investigations led companies to significantly bolster efforts to influence their actions. John W. Suthers, who has served as Colorado’s attorney general for a decade, said he was not surprised by this campaign….

Republican attorneys general were the first to create a party-based fund-raising group, 14 years ago. An initial appeal for contributions to corporate lobbyists and lawyers said that public policy was being shaped “via the courthouse rather than the statehouse.” It urged corporate lawyers “to round up your clients and come see what RAGA is all about.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone has contributed $2.2 million this year to the group, making it the association’s biggest donor.

The Democrats at first fought the idea, but two years later formed a counterpart….

In an effort to make allies rather than adversaries, Bernard Nash, the head of the attorney general practice at Dickstein and the self-proclaimed “godfather” of the field, tells clients that it is essential to build a personal relationship with important attorneys general, part of what his firm boasts as “connections that count.”

“Through their interaction with A.G.s, these individuals will become the ‘face’ of the company to A.G.s, who are less likely to demagogue companies they know and respect,” said a confidential memo that Dickstein sent late last year to one prospective client, Caesars Entertainment….

State lobbying laws generally require registration when corporations hire someone to influence legislation, but appeals targeting attorneys general are not explicitly covered, even if a company is pushing its agenda….

In at least 31 states and in Congress, elected officials are banned from lobbying their former colleagues during a cooling-off period, which is intended to limit their ability to cash in on their contacts. Once they do start to lobby, they are required to register to disclose the work.

But even in states like Georgia, where the law prohibits state officials from registering as lobbyists or engaging in lobbying for one year after leaving office, a former attorney general made appeals almost immediately to his former office.