Lawmakers mad at response to killing privacy bill
The San Francisco Chronicle
SACRAMENTO — A consumer group’s unorthodox response to losing an Assembly vote on a financial privacy bill became a rallying point Wednesday for some lawmakers who hope to
crack down on aggressive lobbying, which some say is “over the top.”
The latest episode to anger legislators was a decision by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights to post on the Internet partial Social Security numbers of lawmakers who did not support the latest attempt to increase protections on personal financial information.
“We should be free to vote our conscience and not be threatened or harassed if we choose to vote contrary to people who are lobbying for special legislation,” said Assemblyman Ed Chavez, D-La Puente, one of the lawmakers whose partial number was published.
The consumer group said it had bought the numbers on the Internet for $26 and was merely demonstrating the need for stronger privacy protections.
Eight of the Assembly Banking Committee’s 12 members on Tuesday either voted against or abstained from voting on a bill that would have increased protections for private financial information.
The group posted the first four numbers of the legislators’ Social Security numbers — information that is more and more available to anyone using Internet research services.
But some annoyed lawmakers questioned whether the Web posting was illegal and cited it as yet another example of high-pressure lobbying that has taken hold in the era of term limits.
‘BORDERING ON EXTORTION’
Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, the chair of the Assembly Banking Committee where the privacy bill died, wrote a letter to Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Los Angeles, saying the tactic “borders on extortion” and asked to have it probed.
Jamie Court, the executive director of the consumer protection group, said the organization was not seeking to influence the vote, noting that the numbers were posted after the bill was defeated. He also said that only the first four numbers were released rather than the full nine.
“We’re trying to demonstrate how vulnerable everyone’s privacy is, and it’s simply a public education message,” he said.
Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Glendale, called it “the kind of over-the-top behavior” that he is seeking to curb. He proposed reforms in response to an incident two weeks ago in which a prominent lobbyist used verbal threats to push a bill.
Under Frommer’s proposals, lobbyists who also manage political campaigns would be barred from attempting to influence lawmakers they have helped elect.
People caught trying to influence lawmakers on the Assembly floor would also face tougher penalties under his proposal.
STIFF PENALTIES PROPOSED
Lobbyists are already barred from the Assembly floor, but there have been several instances in which unregistered advocates enter the chambers to attempt to sway legislators on bills.
While that activity is already banned, the only penalty is removal from the chamber. Under the new proposal, people who have been found to violate the rule could be fined $2,000 and banned from the chambers for two years.
The debate over lobbyists’ behavior was sparked after Sacramento lobbyist and political consultant Richie Ross threatened the chiefs of staff to two lawmakers. Witnesses said he threatened to have one Assembly woman’s bills killed in the Senate and allegedly said another was “dead, in my eyes” after the two did not vote for a farmworker measure he supported.
“Individuals should not be trying to trade on their status as a political consultant and then turn around and lobby,” Frommer said. “It’s dangerous and unseemly, and a definite conflict of interest.”
The proposals take direct aim at the unique dual role Ross has carved out for himself, working as both a campaign manager helping to get Democrats elected and as a lobbyist representing labor, lawyers and other interest groups. Few others, if any, have pursued the same business model.
Since the incident, critics have said that dual role creates the potential for Ross to have undue influence over the politicians he has helped elect.
Ross has issued a blanket apology to Assembly members and said he was reacting to the tense atmosphere around the bill and around the Capitol in general, where a budget crisis has put everyone on edge.
The reform proposals have the potential to set up a fight between Democratic factions of the Legislature. During the last campaign season, Ross was paid to manage the campaigns of 10 current legislators, including Wesson, the speaker of the Assembly.
Ross could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Frommer’s reform proposal would also create a code of conduct for lobbyists that would bar acts of intimidation intended to influence votes on legislation.
After complaints from lawmakers about increasingly aggressive tactics employed by lobbyists, and Ross in particular, Wesson agreed last week to appoint a committee headed by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Alameda, to study the issue.
Frommer sent his proposal to Chan one week ago. Rachel Richman, Chan’s chief of staff, said the group has not yet met or laid out a timetable for its work.
A spokesman for the speaker said the issue is a priority, though he has given no further direction to the committee since it was created 10 days ago.
Other legislators are not waiting for the committee to do its work. Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is crafting her own proposal that would mirror the policy used by the Los Angeles City Council.
Under those rules, any lawmakers who have a business relationship with someone seeking to influence the lawmakers would have to recuse themselves from voting. The measure would be designed to negate the influence of political campaign consultants who are also retained by special interests for political advice, but who do not register as lobbyists.
“There can never be too many efforts to clean up this place,” Wolk said through her chief of staff, Craig Reynolds.
E-mail Christian Berthelsen at [email protected]