By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The Florida Senate is ignoring its own rules for how to conduct an investigation into whether powerful National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer failed to file a dozen years’ worth of quarterly lobbyist compensation reports as required by state law.
Instead, Hammer’s political ally, Senate Rules Committee Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, steered the matter for “review” and “appropriate action” to an obscure bureaucratic office under the Senate president that normally processes lobbyist registrations in Tallahassee.
“I have determined that enforcement of this requirement falls within the jurisdiction of the OLS [Office of Legislative Services],” Benacquisto wrote in a June 13 letter to Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. “It is my expectation that a response from them will be forthcoming in a timely manner.”
The review of the “compensation reports of Marion Hammer” is now in the hands of OLS General Counsel Audrey Moore. Through a spokeswoman, she declined to comment.
Thurston and State Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, D-Orlando, filed a trio of formal complaints last month seeking probes after Florida Bulldog reported on May 14 that from 2014 to 2018 the NRA paid Hammer more than $500,000 to lobby in Florida. None of it was reported to state lobbyist regulators.
In her letter, Benacquisto, who received the NRA’s highest A+ rating, wrote that her “determination is consistent with earlier action taken by the Senate and OLS in a comparable precedent.” When examined, however, that precedent is flimsy.
Ignoring the rules
Likewise, the path Benacquisto chose ignores the Senate’s own rules on how such matters are to be handled, most notably Rule 9.6. Curiously, her letter omits mention of that rule.
Benacquisto did not respond to a Florida Bulldog phone message seeking comment left with an aide.
The Florida Senate Rules and Manual for 2018-2019, adopted in November, regulates the conduct and ethics of lobbyists, and how complaints alleging violations are to be handled. Rule 9.6 spells it all out. Sworn complaints are filed with the Rules Committee chair, with a copy to the Senate’s general counsel. If the chair, in this case Benacquisto, finds within 30 days that the complaint fails to state facts supporting a finding of a violation, the complaint is dismissed. If the complaint states facts that, if true, would be a violation of the rules, “the complaint shall be referred to a special master or select committee to determine probable cause.”
That didn’t happen in the case of lobbyist Marion Hammer. Nor did the required “investigation” with “an opportunity” for the lobbyist to be heard. The rules also say that a “report and recommendations shall then be prepared,” but that won’t happen on the current trajectory.
For complaints that are not dismissed, yet another select committee is appointed to consider the report and recommendation, hear from the lobbyist and develop its own recommendation.
If the complaint doesn’t go away at this stage, “the report and recommendation and the recommendation of the select committee shall be presented to the President” of the Senate. Absent a plea deal of some kind, the matter then goes to the full Senate for final action.
The fine for filing late reports is up to $50 per day per report, not to exceed $5,000 per report. In Hammer’s case, fines from 2007 until today could total in excess of $200,000.
Prohibited from lobbying?
More important to a high-profile lobbyist like Hammer, however, is that Senate rules say that violators “shall” be “admonished, censured, reprimanded, placed on probation or prohibited from lobbying for the duration of the session and from appearing before any Senate committee.’’ Hammer has declined comment.
The precedent cited by Benacquisto to avoid the investigation and possible penalties required by Senate Rule 9 involves a 2007 complaint against another lobbyist that also alleged a failure to file compensation reports. Paperwork about it was provided to Florida Bulldog by Senate President Bill Galvano’s spokeswoman, Katie Betta.
That paperwork shows that after an investigation found “at least probable cause to believe that a violation of state law and legislative rules occurred,’’ the matter was handed off to OLS. Yet the statute cited as the reason for the referral, 11.045(7), doesn’t mention OLS. Instead, like the Senate rules, it provides for the creation of a committee to investigate.
So how OLS got the case has never been adequately explained, then or now.
An April 27 report by the NRA’s secretary listed various payments made to NRA board members and staff in 2018 for “goods and services.” Hammer got $270,000 for “consulting services and legislative lobbying in Florida.”
Hammer is the registered lobbyist for both the NRA and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, where she serves as the salaried executive director.
Employees who do in-house lobbying for their employer, as Hammer does for Unified Sportsmen, are generally not required to register or file compensation reports. That’s because only “lobbying firms,” not individual lobbyists, are required to disclose their compensation.
Contract lobbyists must disclose
But contract lobbyists like the NRA’s Hammer who are paid fees for their services must annually register and disclose.
Every year during the registration process, lobbyists are asked whether they are, or belong to, a lobbying firm and if so to identify that firm. When no firm is listed, the lobbyist registration office of the OLS assumes that the filer is an employee, OLS General Counsel Moore told Florida Bulldog last month.
“We only come to know about lobbying firms through the registration process,” said Moore. “Everyone who is a lobbyist has to fill out the form and if you identify a firm that triggers” the requirement to file compensation reports. “There is no affirmative duty to say you are an employee.”
Thus, under Florida’s self-reporting honor system, the OLS has for years mistakenly assumed that lobbyist Marion Hammer is an NRA employee.
Meanwhile, Sen. Thurston has pushed back against Benacquisto’s decision. In a letter sent Tuesday, he asked Benacquisto to explain “why no action is being taken under Senate Rule 9.6, which clearly governs investigation and enforcement of this sworn complaint.”
Thurston also asked Benacquisto to provide the precedent she cited “as justification for your actions,” including “any and all associated reports, correspondence, recommendations, etc.” regarding his complaint.