According to a copy of a City Inspector General report expected to be released today and of which Aldertrack obtained an advanced draft, lobbyists might soon have to re-up their registration online and face harsher fines for late registration if Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s latest recommendations are heeded by the Board of Ethics (BOE). The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audited how well the BOE conducted lobbyist registration, and suggested the board take “small steps to make major gains” in lobbyist disclosure, which is key to enforcing campaign finance restrictions and revolving door rules for former city officials and employees.

Download copy of report obtained by Aldertrack.

The seven members of the Board are unpaid mayoral-appointees who serve four year terms and render advisory opinions on ethics rulings. The Board’s budget of $845,937 pays for eight full time staff who, among other duties, oversee the hundreds (anywhere from 525 to nearly 700 over the past ten years) of lobbyists registered in Chicago.

But the IG audit, which looked into annual registrations and quarterly reports filed in 2013 and 2014, notes that staff–which processes registrations, provides ethics training and takes care of administrative duties–doesn’t launch its own investigations into whether all lobbyists are properly registered, or if registration is accurate. “Instead, BOE relied on public complaints to alert it to any lobbyists who did not comply with the Ethics Ordinance,” the report says. “BOE did not attempt to confirm the veracity of lobbyist disclosures or to ensure that everyone required to register as a lobbyist in fact did so.“ BOE told the OIG they didn’t have the legal authority to do so without a complaint.

There were 45 lobbyists who failed to meet the board’s January 20 deadline for annual registration in 2014, but just two were penalized – a loss of $197,000 in potential fines. Those fines could cover nearly a quarter of the Board’s budget, the IG report argues, “Overall in 2014, BOE fined a total of ten late-registering lobbyists… a total of $58,000.” The OIG didn’t calculate how much the BOE was missing out on for late filings of quarterly reports.

Waiving or reducing fines are at the discretion of the Board’s Executive Director, Steve Berlin. Fines for late registration are $1,000 a day until the filing is fixed. Berlin can impose an accumulated fine seven days after a lobbyist is told he or she is in violation, and that lobbyist can contest or explain the late filing.

In response to the OIG’s report, BOE said it would pursue an electronic-only filing system, doing away with hard-copy registration that sometimes led to process gaps and clerical errors, which it conceded, might “cause consternation or frustration” for some lobbyists. But said the report’s quality assurance recommendations “are not required, unless empirical research is performed into whether additional lobbyist or lobbyist-client/employer information that might be gathered from amending the Governmental Ethics Ordinance as described in the Report would provide significant added value,” and that BOE “levies the full amount of fines allowable.” Most recent fines levied can be found here.

The Board says its monitoring of lobbyists’ filings is ‘sufficient’, pointing to its open data portal and its designation from the Sunlight Foundation as having some of the country’s “strongest lobbying disclosure practices.” BOE still plans to do its due diligence and research suggestions to determine whether it should propose amendments to the City Council.

This report, coincidentally, came to Aldertrack on the same day the most recent amended Ethics Ordinance came into effect. Council approved the changes in July, and Mayor Emanuel signed it on September 30, 2015. Berlin told aldermen the changes (Legislative Reference Bureau Summary), which included tweaks to financial disclosure of stock ownership, submission of reports to the now-defunct Legislative Inspector General, and prohibitions on city employees from participating in decision-making that could benefit a former employee, were minor and added clarity to the existing code.