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The coalition calling itself Americans for Secure Retirement couldn’t have picked a more soothing name. An advocate for preserving older folks’ standard of living, it is open about the fact that some of its support comes from the insurance and annuity industry. But the group bills itself as a “broad-based coalition” on its Web site, and members like the Latino Coalition, National Association of Small Disadvantaged Businesses, and Citizens Against Government Waste bring an appearance of balance to the group’s lobbying efforts. But the nonprofits aren’t the ones paying the coalition’s bills, according to the Bockorny Group’s first quarterly lobbying filing on the coalition’s behalf. While the coalition’s spokesman says the nonprofits are active advocates, the only entities that ponied up and actively lobbied — to give preferential tax treatment to annuities — are 16 financial planning companies and a life insurance trade group. It isn’t shocking that a powerful industry would seek to give its lobbying muscle a public interest veneer, but keeping that role under wraps just got a bit harder. Under new lobbying rules, coalitions and associations must reveal any backer with a $5,000 stake and an active role in their lobbying. In some cases, like that of Americans for Secure Retirement, that’s revealed the organization’s key financiers. But most of the quarterly filings disclose far less. There are legitimate reasons why the new filings don’t demonstrate who’s paying for what, says Holland & Knight’s Christopher DeLacy, who specializes in federal public law. Grass-roots lobbying organizations are exempt from disclosure, and what constitutes “active involvement” in a lobbying effort is up for debate. But many organizations likely overlooked the more stringent reporting requirements, he says. “I think there’s a certain number of entities that simply did not understand this provision,” he says. Willful disregard for the rule is likely to be rare, say both DeLacy and prominent K Street lobbyists. Despite the National Association of Manufacturers’ hard-fought attempt to keep its lobbying affiliates separate, most lobbying firms and trade associations find that dropping their clients’ names opens doors on Capitol Hill. “When you are going to policy-makers, the arrows in your quiver are the identities of the people in your coalition,” says Steven Ross, the head of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s public law and policy practice. Regardless of whether the omission is by accident or intention, firms or associations that withhold their affiliates from quarterly filings probably have time to change course. Under the disclosure law, the Government Accountability Office can audit firms and coalitions for compliance, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office could prosecute them. But lobbyists who file incomplete disclosures are likely only at risk of receiving a yellow noncompliance postcard from the Senate Office of Public Records — at least for the time being. “It’s those yellow postcards you put in the drawer that are going to get you in trouble,” DeLacy says. That might not sound like much of a threat, but it’s another milestone in Washington’s continuing adjustment to the new ethics law. Perkins Coie’s Marc Elias says the lobbying disclosure filings submitted since the passage of last year’s legislation have been the most carefully compiled he’s ever seen. And with the first-quarter reporting finished, compliance attorneys can start focusing on the next big ethics challenge: Certifying that none of their lobbyists have given congressional officials any gifts. Says Elias: “That’s going to be a huge sea change in the way Washington does business.”
Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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