DENVER—A 9NEWS investigation has uncovered nearly $90,000 in unpaid fines by Colorado lobbyists, among them a current state senator, and an ineffective system in state government to force those fines to be paid.
You can watch a crowd of lobbyists working each day during legislative sessions in Colorado. They outnumber state lawmakers by more than six to one.
"There's nothing wrong with lobbying, of course. People who lobby are just their right to petition the government, but of course, the voters need to know what's going on," said DU political science professor Peter Hanson.
To that end, lobbyists are required to register with the Secretary of State's office and file monthly and yearly disclosures stating who is paying them and how much to influence state law.
Fines for failing to file those disclosures can be hefty, but the state's ability to force lobbyists to pay them is shaky unless the person wishes to become an active lobbyist again.
Lobbyists can be banned from registering if they don't pay.
Our investigation found the Secretary of State's office sent $89,873.20 to collections over the last 12 months.
Responding to an open records request from 9NEWS, the Secretary of State's office reported that 20 lobbyists were on the list. (A top ten list of unpaid fines from this group appears at the bottom of this story.)
Among the names was state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri (D-Westminster,) who owed $3,630.00 in fines from his former job as a lobbyist for ACLU of Colorado.
"I think I made an honest mistake, I'd made an agreement with my previous employer that the year-end report would be filed on my behalf because I left the organization," Ulibarri said.
Ulibarri filed the missing report once he knew it hadn't been completed. The ACLU says it got the notice from the state after Ulibarri was elected. He's been appealing a collections notice for the amount since he found out about it nearly a year ago.
"When I received the notice, it was a pretty steep fine. $3600 dollars is a steep fine that I hadn't been aware of," Ulibarri said. "So, like most Coloradans, that's a lot of money for me and my family. It's more than ten percent of my pay as a legislator."
Ulibarri says he's not looking for special treatment. He's using the same appeals process available to anyone in his situation.
"And it's ultimately my responsibility and if I have to pay $3600, I will," Ulibarri said.
Fines add up fast. Missing a single disclosure results in a fine of $20 per day for the first ten days and $50 per day after that. Missing more reports starts additional fines on top of the first missed report and it's possible to rack up $10,000 in fines in less than four months.
How is it possible for a person who owes thousands of dollars to the state to escape paying it long enough to be elected to the state legislature?
The answer is that unless the person wants to register again as a lobbyist, the system is ineffective at collecting the money.
State law dictates that the fines are charged to the person who registers as a lobbyist, not the organization they work for. This means that organizations can keep on lobbying even if some of the lobbyists who worked for them owe thousands of dollars to the state.
Lobbyists who leave their employers frequently cited this disconnect as the reason they didn't file disclosures and failed to pay the fines. The person owes money, but the state only has their office contact information.
That's the case with the person who topped the list provided by the Secretary of State.
Ryan Clement had $32,258.60 sent to collections. After 9NEWS started asking about his fines, Clement settled with the Secretary of State's office for $500.
"I was shocked," Clements told 9NEWS via telephone. "If you're not lobbying you may not know you have fines due."
Clements agreed to an on-camera interview, but later changed his mind.
While our investigation found emails proving Clements knew months ago that he owed money and could settle for $500, the late notices weren't being forwarded to Clements, which is one reason why he was allowed to settle for much less.
"One of the things you have to do it look at the public harm," said Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler. "He filed all of the information."
The fines in Clement's case were charged after he left his job with Phase Line Strategies, a lobbying firm that has worked for numerous companies and right-leaning political campaigns, to take a job as President of Mullen High School.
When Clement left, Phase Line stopped filing his disclosure forms for him. Settling his fines will allow Clement to register as a lobbyist again, as he and his wife are starting up their own lobbying firm.
Since he left Phase Line, the company merged with a nationwide lobbying and campaign firm called R&R Partners, which has been allowed to continue lobbying despite the previously unpaid fine from Clement.
Gessler says even if a person doesn't plan to start lobbying again, they still are liable for the fines. Collections are handled by a separate government agency.
Colorado Ethics Watch, a group that has brought complaints against Gessler before, say he's taking good steps in his efforts to freeze lobbyists' accounts earlier in an effort to keep fines from mushrooming.
However, the group argues the law could be changed to make the system work much more effectively.
"The Secretary of State's office has no authority to follow up with the collections people and make sure that this is a priority and that these fines get collected," said Luis Toro, who heads Colorado Ethics Watch.
Toro points to other states which allow the same regulators that oversee lobbyists to handle collections in-house, which he argues is a tougher enforcement scheme.
A tougher system would get the unfiled reports turned in more quickly, which is the reason the steep fines exists in the first place.
Below is the list of the top fines sent to collections by the Colorado Secretary of State's office in the 12 months prior to March 2014, with information on each lobbyist and their fines:
Phase Line Strategies
(Firm merged w/ R&R partners)
Firm's client list included:
Numerous companies & conservative causes
The Colorado Society of Electroneurodiagnostic Technologists, Inc.
David K Williams
Gadsen Society of Colorado
CO Republican Business Coalition
Libertarian Party of CO
CO Coalition for Approval Voting
The "World Peace Project"
Repeal of gay marriage ban
ING North America Insurance
ACLU of Colorado
The A&G Group
Colorado Association of Family Medicine Residencies
Susanna Jane Morris
American Heart Association
Colorado Home Alliance
Concerned Consumers of CO