By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Last week Florida’s Commission on Ethics announced it found “no probable cause” to believe that influential National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer failed to follow state lobbyist registration requirements, including disclosing how much the NRA was paying her over the years.
That’s despite the fact that Hammer filed zero quarterly lobbyist compensation reports from 2007, when the state began requiring them, until last year when Florida Bulldog first reported her lack of disclosure in May 2019.
The commission’s no probable cause finding was unusual for another reason: It was the opposite of what commissioners and staff concluded five days earlier during closed-door discussions to hash out Fort Lauderdale Democratic State Sen. Perry Thurston’s ethics complaint against Hammer, a review of audio of that 25-minute meeting on July 24 shows.
Lobbyists who fail to file quarterly compensation reports on time can be fined $50 a day per report for each late day, to a maximum of $5,000 per late report. So why did the ethics commission vote to let Hammer off without sending the case to the governor and cabinet for a possible public hearing, further investigation and, if necessary, an “appropriate penalty’’?
The answer involves a kind of pretzel logic that appears intended to support an outcome favored by powerful Republican legislators who’d already sought to make Hammer’s case go away as painlessly as possible while ignoring the Senate’s own rules as to how to conduct an investigation.
A deferential probe
The outcome was further abetted by a deferential probe in which:
- No subpoenas for information or testimony were issued.
- The ostensibly independent commission’s investigation relied heavily on a prior inquiry conducted under the auspices of the Senate’s Republican leadership.
- Words in at least three sections of its 25-page Report of Investigation were deleted or changed at the request of Hammer’s lawyer to remove language that described her alleged offenses.
- Two Republican commission members, former Senate President Don Gaetz and former Sen. John Grant, both disclosed that they were NRA members who have worked with Hammer on legislation, but said it would not affect their ability to deliberate. A third member, whose name could not be discerned from the audio, said he knows Hammer “but I don’t think it will impair my judgment.” He did not elaborate.
At the center of the commission’s twisted logic is Hammer’s action in August 2019 to amend her lobbyist registration and retroactively file quarterly compensation reports back to 2015. She did that only after being instructed to do so by the Legislature’s Office of Legislative Services (OLS) following a brief inquiry ordered by the Senate’s Republican leadership to avoid having to follow a Senate rule that could have led to a more high-profile investigation and possibly even action by the full Senate.
But because she did that, the thinking at the commission went, any foul had been fixed.
“I don’t see there being an issue in the future,” said Assistant Attorney General Melody Hadley, the Commission Advocate. “I just don’t see how moving forward [with a finding of probable cause] would be in the public interest. It seems the matter has been resolved.”
Commission Chair Kimberly Bonder Rezanka, a Coca attorney appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, asked Hadley, “There is probable cause here, but because the remedy…everything has been cleaned up and amended and the public now knows, that’s why you suggest” dismissing the allegation that she had failed to file compensation reports. “Is that correct?”
“That’s correct. There were no compensation reports filed at those particular times when they were required to be filed. And yes, correct, they have now been disseminated to the public or the public has them available,” replied Hadley.
Ignoring the obvious
The commission, however, ignored the obvious fact that those compensation disclosure reports weren’t available to the public at the relevant times they were supposed to be available and when proposed gun laws were being debated.
For example, after the massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in February 2018, as Hammer appeared before legislative committees and worked behind the scenes to rally support against provisions of a school safety bill, no one knew the NRA had paid her $270,000 that year alone. The total the NRA paid Hammer from 2005 to 2018: $2 million, according to the OLS’s report.
Hammer didn’t voluntarily disclose any of it. She disclosed some of it only after she got caught, another significant fact that went unmentioned by the commission and its lawyers.
Hammer added her own stew of twists, turns and obfuscations to the inquiry. Most significantly, she sought to distance her acceptance of all that NRA money from any lobbying she did in Florida.
How did she do that, particularly when she has been registered to lobby for the NRA in Florida for decades?
Hammer’s NRA consulting contract
In a sworn interview with commission Investigator Ronald Moalli last October, Hammer explained the NRA paid her under a consulting contract whose services did not include lobbying in Florida.
“They’re consulting for other matters outside of Florida?” asked Moalli.
“Outside of Florida, yes,” replied Hammer, a past NRA president who has served as an uncompensated board member since 1982.
But that’s not how the NRA Secretary described Hammer’s relationship with the NRA in reports handed out at the group’s annual meetings in 2018 and 2019. Both reports said Hammer was paid for “legislative lobbying in Florida.”
Both the OLS and the ethics commission, which adopted the findings in OLS’s report from a year ago, accepted Hammer’s explanation that the NRA report’s language had been a “mistake” that she was unaware of until the investigation began. And when she contacted NRA Secretary John C. Frazer, a member of his staff “indicated” he made the change to wording in previous reports, but had no idea why, according to the OLS report.
Hammer was not asked in her interview to describe her out-of-state contractual duties for the NRA. And she was successful in getting both the commission and the OLS to acquiesce to her demand that her NRA contract not be made public.
According to the ethics commission’s report, Hammer’s lawyer did provide a piece of the contract, its “scope of services” section, “for review only.” The report quotes it, and the word lobbying isn’t used. Rather, the section includes a broad description of providing “advice, analysis and other duties” as assigned by NRA executives, including “legislation, initiative, referenda, election, communication and media matters and other related services as may be requested.”
The NRA’s payments to Hammer are in addition to the $110,000 annual salary she draws as executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida (USF), its heavily subsidized “alter-ego,” as described by Hammer’s attorney, Republican operative and former party general counsel Richard Coates.
The NRA washes the funding of its Florida lobbying operations through USF. In her 12-page sworn interview with the ethics commission, Hammer said USF pays for all of her Florida lobbying work, even though she lists both USF and the NRA as principals. “We are a lobbying organization,” she said.
While the ethics commission dismissed Sen. Thurston’s allegation that Hammer had failed to properly file lobbyist compensation reports “because the public interest would not be served by our proceeding further,” it also decided there was no probable cause to believe she hadn’t adhered to the state’s lobbyist registration process by not associating herself with a “lobbying firm.” It reached that decision after Hammer said she’d gotten legal advice years ago that said she didn’t have to do that.
As with the ruling on the compensation reports, commissioners reached their conclusion because by the time they heard the case Hammer had followed the OLS’s direction and filed paperwork to reflect that her representation of both USF and the NRA “is in association with a lobbying firm, USF.”