The Chicago Board of Ethics recently handed down a $90,000 fine – the highest in its history – against an individual who failed to register as a lobbyist under Chicago's Lobbyist Registration ordinance. An additional fine of $2,000 was imposed on the individual's client.
The lobbying activity stemmed from a single email sent by the individual to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's non-City email address. The emails came to light when the Mayor's office disclosed more than 3,000 pages of emails in connection with a lawsuit filed by the Better Government Association.
Chicago has one of the broadest lobbyist registration requirements in the country, both in terms of who is considered a lobbyist and what kind of activity constitutes lobbying. A "lobbyist" is any individual who undertakes to influence any legislative or administrative action on behalf of another. Any individual, whether or not they are formally designated as a lobbyist or consider themselves to be a lobbyist, can be considered a "lobbyist" under Chicago's ordinance. This could include lawyers, non-lawyers, brokers, accountants, advisors, and consultants and contractors of any type. This could also include principals, owners and investors themselves, and their employees. Actions constituting "lobbying" could be written or verbal communications, such as formal or informal in-person meetings, phone conversations or email communications.
Any individual engaging in "lobbying" activity is required to register as a lobbyist with the City no later than January 20 of each year, or within 5 days after engaging in the initial lobbying activity. Certain activities are exempt, such as merely submitting permit or license applications or responding to a City RFP or RFQ. Additional exceptions cover journalists, certain adjudicative proceedings, non-\profit organizations and certain other activities. The exceptions are narrow, and the specific facts of an exception should be considered before invoking an exception.
Lobbyists must also file quarterly lobbyist activity reports identifying each client on whose behalf they lobbied during the preceding quarter, the amount of compensation received from each client, the city agency lobbied, the administrative or legislative action involved, expenditures paid for lobbying and certain gifts and political contributions. Lobbyists must also complete annual ethics training programs.
Potential sanctions for failing to register or file quarterly reports, failing to complete annual ethics training and other violations include fines and suspensions. For example, failing to register as a lobbyist carries a financial penalty of $1,000 for each day the violation continues – in other words, for each day the individual failed to register after he or she was required to.