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Anyone hear the sound of those handcuffs snapping shut? Maybe that’s only in a lobbyist’s nightmares. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 is now in full force, and lobbyists must file their first quarterly disclosure form by April 21. In the past, the reports have been due twice a year. Lobbying firms, trade associations, and other groups have been wrestling with the law’s provisions for months, working to understand how it bans gifts, sets parameters for lobbyist-funded parties at the national political conventions, and requires more extensive disclosure of campaign contributions. The law — which many have compared to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act because of its lengthy requirements and sweeping reach — now carries criminal penalties for the first time. Violators face fines of up to $200,000 and up to five years in jail. No wonder, then, that lobbyists are taking lobbying disclosure reports a lot more seriously. For many, the April 21 filing will be an early brush with the new requirements. And the Government Accountability Office is required to audit lobbyists to ensure compliance, though the agency says it’s still working out what it will do and how often it will do it. The new form, which came out last week, isn’t that different from the old form, though reporting thresholds are lower — lobbyists must report sums of $5,000 or more rounded to the nearest $10,000 instead of sums of $10,000 or more — and disclosure requirements are more extensive (including a requirement to disclose the names of group members). With the threat of audits hanging over their heads, lobbyists around town are overhauling the way they track time spent lobbying, and lobby shops are scrutinizing who they list as lobbyists and who they don’t. And their lawyers are encouraging them to be as precise as possible. “Frankly, the criminal penalty section of the new law is a real motivator for better time and expense keeping,” says Craig Engle, the head of Arent Fox’s political law practice. WHERE DOES THE TIME GO? Engle says that in the past, some firms and trade associations didn’t keep perfect track of their hours, instead ballparking an estimate based on past years. With the threat of GAO audits looming, people are changing their ways, he says. “There is nothing wrong with spending money on lobbying. You just have to … be able to show that your number is right” by producing backup documentation such as time sheets. Jeff Altman of McKenna Long & Aldridge, who represents many nonprofits and trade associations, says some of the groups he works with are discovering the same thing about past time-tracking efforts. In the past, he says, most organizations registered and “made a good faith effort to just estimate and put down a dollar amount and just file the forms.” Now, lobbyists are asking compliance lawyers for help. Robert Kelner, chairman of Covington & Burling’s election and political law practice group, says he estimates business is up by as much as 40 percent. Some companies are reviewing compliance practices in general and asking for help putting new time-tracking systems in place. Others are trying to find someone to head up their compliance efforts who is willing to take responsibility for certifying that no one at the lobbying firm has broken any gift rules, something that has to be done twice a year. Cassidy & Associates, for instance, recently hired former federal prosecutor Andrew Kameros as its general counsel; one of his main jobs is to oversee the firm’s compliance efforts. Firms that already track time say they’re in good shape to meet the new requirements, though some large ones are worried about the effort it will take to file four times a year. “Filing four times a year is not making anybody happy,” says Jim Christian, the partner in charge of lobbying disclosure reports at Patton Boggs. Under the previous system, firms had 45 days to file a report for a six-month period; the new law allows only 20 days after the quarter ends, “and we don’t have any fewer reports,” Christian says. THE LIST Of course, one issue that some trade associations hope will be decided before the April filing deadline is the lawsuit the National Association of Manufacturers brought last month in hopes of overturning a provision that requires the organization to disclose its members’ identities. The group is requesting an injunction so it doesn’t have to disclose its membership in April. NAM President John Engler says the new rules have “a very profound chilling effect on our members” and violate First Amendment rights to freedom of association and to petition the government. But backers of the new lobbying law say the measure is reasonable, and only requires disclosure of those actively involved in funding or directing lobbying activities. NAM is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to issue a preliminary injunction allowing it to hold off on disclosing its members. Arent Fox’s Engle says other trade associations are watching the suit, but “currently grousing and preparing to disclose” if the court doesn’t issue the injunction. Some of the changes, compliance lawyers say, are logistical. Cindi Berry, a partner who heads the government relations practice at Powell Goldstein, says she’s held four recent briefings for groups and firms that lobby and has another scheduled for next week. Firms are changing expense reimbursement forms, rewriting orientation programs for new hires, and asking for help designing new time sheets. Berry says there’s been a “flurry of activity” as the April filing deadline draws near, and briefings have prompted sometimes quirky questions, especially from employees who don’t lobby directly. Some of those questions have left Berry dishing out advice on matters that aren’t usually brought to the lawyers — on questions of appropriate party menus, whether the law can get one out of unwanted social obligations, and other subjects typically left to Miss Manners. “What makes it interesting are some of the scenarios people come up with,” she says. “Someone asked me, �Well, my brother works in the White House but it’s a low-level position. Do I have to give him a birthday gift this year?’” Berry’s staying out of that one. That might be one for Mom.
Carrie Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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