Lobbying and lawmakers…

From the Idaho Statesman

I thought something was up last month when retiring Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, appeared to stray from her party’s position on imposing a one-year cooling-off period before lawmakers and other high officials become lobbyists.

“Let’s say we have a different governor. Where does that staff go? I mean, they need a job. They have families, too,” Jaquet said in reflecting on her 18 years of service, including 10 as minority leader.

I immediately thought of Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, whose decision to leave the Legislature after just four years dimmed what many Democrats considered one of their brightest stars.

Cronin, father of 9-year-old twins, has spent the past decade running a marketing and communications firm. His associate left for another job last fall.

Though he has a master’s from Harvard, Cronin, 41, has made it no secret that supporting his family hasn’t been easy to balance with legislative duties. “I’ve talked candidly with Wendy about my struggles and difficulties with making a living in general for a couple of years now.”

So, when Cronin told me Tuesday that he was taking a job at Strategies 360, which opened a Boise office in 2010, I expected him to confirm a rumor he would become a lobbyist. After all, the two Democrats fired in February by the left-leaning Seattle-based firm were leading lobbyists for the oil and gas industry in the hot fight over regulation.

While just 14 of Idaho’s 376 registered lobbyists are former lawmakers, several are among the heaviest hitters, including Bill Roden, Skip Smyser and Jerry Deckard. Relatives of lawmakers abound, as do former high-level staffers. Connections and an understanding of the process can be “monetized.”

But Cronin said he won’t register as a lobbyist when he starts next week and doesn’t have plans to do so.

“I don’t want to say ‘never,’ but that’s not why they hired me,” Cronin said. “I’m attracted to them because they’re a strategic communications firm. They do marketing, they do branding, they do public relations, they do social media and social networking.”

Paul Queary, spokesman for 360, affirmed Cronin’s account, saying his skills “lend themselves to a different basket of clients.”

Anonymous comments on my Wednesday blog post and a Friday column on Cronin were skeptical. “So how does one go work for a lobbying firm and not register as a lobbyist?” asked one.

“What’s the difference between lobbying and ‘PR consulting’? Just the cost of the lunch tab?” wrote another.

Cronin acknowledged he’ll be doing policy work but said that doesn’t require him to lobby.

“You can be a PR consultant and not necessarily get into the definition of lobbying,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who enforces the law. “Sometimes it is a fine line. Our view as a disclosure office is: When in doubt, register and report. Nobody’s ever been fined or convicted for overreporting.”

In fact, no one’s ever been convicted under the law’s misdemeanor provision, which requires willful violation. Civil fines are small — Monsanto’s Trent Clark paid $100 this year for not registering on time — and typically come for filing late spending reports. Failing to register is rare, Ysursa said.

Ysursa is amused by the criticism of Cronin, saying, “The cart’s about five feet in front of the horse here, isn’t it? They’re anticipating he will lobby and won’t register. I don’t know how you anticipate a breach.”

Ysursa said he believes compliance is solid: “There’s a lot of self-policing. We’ll hear something from somebody else, obviously somebody who’s mad. I think there will be a lot of scrutiny of Mr. Cronin’s activities.”

Cronin plans to finish his term, which ends Dec. 1. After that, there is no legal bar to him lobbying. Democrats have called for personal financial disclosure without unilaterally revealing their income and assets.

But if Cronin hopes to preserve his prospects to return to the Legislature or seek higher office, he would be far better off not becoming a lobbyist.

Even 38 years after the disclosure law passed, the association of lobbyists calls itself “Idaho Legislative Advisors,” Ysursa noted.

“There’s still the old scarlet letter associated with the word ‘lobbyist,’ ” Ysursa said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438

From the Idaho Statesman

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