Every state has laws regulating lobbying, but almost all of those laws apply to lobbying members of state legislatures, not attorneys general. For the most part, states never anticipated that their chief legal officers would be the subject of aggressive pressure from big businesses and special interests.
But that’s all changed now. Politics at all levels has become dominated by those with enough money to spend lavishly on electing public officials and then pushing them for favors. In a recent investigative report, Eric Lipton of The Times revealed that an entire industry has sprung up to lobby state attorneys general on behalf of companies that are under scrutiny, or that need special legal benefits from a state.
The companies give hundreds of thousands of dollars (and often much more) to the campaigns or political funds set up to elect the attorneys general. Once in office, many of these officials are treated to expensive vacations at resort hotels, where they mingle with the lobbyists who are trying to cut deals for their clients.
The position of attorney general is often both extremely powerful and relatively low-profile, making it a perfect target for lobbying. These officials regulate corporations, enforce consumer protections and environmental laws, and bring civil suits against lawbreakers, often collectively. Many of them handle prosecutions and criminal appeals, and represent state agencies in court.
Last year, after more than 30 attorneys general began investigating deceptive advertising by 5-Hour Energy, the caffeinated drink, the company hired Dickstein Shapiro, a national law firm that has a large practice dedicated to lobbying attorneys general. The firm has given at least $730,000 to their campaigns in the last five years, and executives of the drink company have given more than $280,000. Dickstein began working on attorneys general one by one, and had success: In Missouri, Attorney General Chris Koster pulled out of the investigation after being pressured by a Dickstein lawyer at a fund-raising event held at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in California.
Mr. Koster, a Democrat, has also been the subject of successful lobbying campaigns by two other Dickstein clients, Pfizer and AT&T, and is now the subject of a legislative investigation into his actions. He has denied any wrongdoing, and on Wednesday announced that he would no longer accept donations or gifts from lobbyists, or from the subjects of his investigations.
The attorney general of Florida, Pam Bondi, a Republican, has accepted nearly $25,000 in airfare, lodging and meals to attend meetings of the Republican Attorneys General Association, all of which was paid indirectly by corporate donations. At these meetings, she regularly met with lobbyists for industries that she regulates, and she has dropped several investigations into clients represented by Dickstein. Last year, after Ms. Bondi took a free ride to a resort that was paid for, in large part, by Dickstein, she invited one of the firm’s lobbyists to stay at her home while recovering from surgery. The Florida Commission on Ethics is investigating whether Dickstein illegally lobbied Ms. Bondi, because it is not registered as a lobbyist in the state.
The Times investigation showed that lobbyists have written draft legal filings that were used by attorneys general in court cases, and have even done legal work for their offices. At least one attorney general — Bob Ferguson of Washington State — personally solicited a donation from 5-Hour Energy after joining the investigation against the company, leading the company to complain that it was being shaken down for money.
For state lawmakers, fixing this mess will have to go beyond investigating individual cases. State lobbying laws will have to be expanded to cover attorneys general; already, many states barely police gifts to legislators. (Ten states allow officeholders to take gifts of unlimited value.) States also need to put lower limits on how much a donor can give to an attorney general’s campaign, or even consider making the job an appointed position, as it is in seven states. Big-money politics should not mix with state legal power.