CONCORD — A healthy economy and a feisty election year combined to make 2018 a record-setting one for fees paid to lobbyists hired to influence the state Legislature, Gov. Chris Sununu and state agencies.
Unofficially, the nearly 500 private or public interests that hired lobbyists last year paid out nearly $10.7 million in fees.
This amount dwarfed the previous record of an estimated $8.4 million in fees paid out in 2017, the first year Sununu was governor.
Four well-connected firms each with dozens of clients received at least $1 million in fees last year.
Those leading firms are:
Demers, Blaisdell & Prosol Inc., run by former Democratic state Rep. and longtime presidential campaign insider Jim Demers. The company includes Robert Blaisdell, son of the late Senate President Clesson “Junie” Blaisdell, a Keene Democrat.
The Dupont Group, named for its now-retired founder, ex-Senate President Ed Dupont, a Rochester Republican.
Sheehan Phinney Capitol Group, the lobbying arm attached to a large Manchester law firm led by ex-GOP legislative staffer and campaign strategist Bruce Berke.
RYP Granite Strategies, another lobbying unit inside a Concord law firm, which is headed by Republican presidential strategist Tom Rath, a former attorney general.
The Union Leader constructed a database of the fees paid to these lobbyists from information available on the Secretary of State’s website.
But the state’s website is not searchable.
All lobbyists have to report quarterly the fees and expenses they incurred over the previous three months.
Little oversight of reports
State officials scan all the forms and post them online. This means anyone trying to aggregate all the fees paid to any firm has to total up all of the individual forms.
In 2018, more than 1,000 lobbying firms filed these reports because several firms have more than one associate working for them.
For example, the Sheehan Phinney Capitol Group has five registered lobbyists who represent 40 clients (see the chart above).
To find out what the firm got paid in total requires looking at more than 120 forms.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg heads his own lobbying firm called Legislative Solutions LLC.
In 2018, the firm received $243,500 in fees from nine registered clients ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire to Wheelabrator Technologies.
Clegg said the lobbying laws are too open-ended and not closely reviewed.
“I just feel like the laws as they are now written really allow a lot of off-the-books activity, and, besides, there isn’t anybody enforcing them,” Clegg said.
“There is nobody that is holding people accountable,” he said.
Under existing state law, Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office collects and manages lobbyist disclosure information and the Attorney General’s office carries out any enforcement action.
Current Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, wants to beef things up and proposed legislation (SB 230) to give Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald a three-fold increase in staffing in the state’s election law unit.
The bill would compel the agency to review lobbyist activity.
“I think the AG is doing the best he can with very limited resources,” Feltes said. “But if we are serious about our lobbying laws and transparency and disclosure, we have to dedicate the resources so it functions properly and the public has confidence there is integrity in the system.”
After becoming attorney general, MacDonald created an election law unit, and the present state budget gave him two staffers — an assistant attorney general and an investigator.
The bill Feltes is advancing would create a six-person team, adding two full-time lawyers, another investigator and a paralegal. As written, the increased staff would cost $400,000 a year.
During a recent public hearing, MacDonald spoke more about the need to improve the slow response on campaign finance and election complaints that this staff would address.
But MacDonald said his office’s review of lobbying should be enhanced.
“We need to do better with respect to the lobbyist disclosure,” MacDonald said. “There needs to be a standardized review of those disclosures.”
A Senate panel last Thursday endorsed the measure, 5-0.
In the state budget Sununu presented earlier this month, the governor proposed giving the attorney general one of the four positions that Feltes calls for in his bill.
“I’m pleased this bill in committee got bipartisan support because it’s a goal we all should strive for,” Feltes said.
The Union Leader’s review found many lobbyists fail to disclose on any report how much their firm got paid in total fees.
An exception to that was the Demers Group, whose 34 clients range from law enforcement agencies, health insurers, power companies and Walmart to the state’s golf course superintendents.
Demers said Gardner’s staff told him to do it.
“Under our laws, we were advised by the secretary of state’s office that we should be doing this at the end of the year, so we do it,” Demers said.
“The form doesn’t so specifically state that, but in the interest of transparency, we decided we should be totaling up what our fees are at the end of the year.”
Demers defended the level of disclosure lobbyists in this state provide. He noted lobbyists in most states don’t reveal their expenses, which is intended to show what each firm spends to do its work.
“We have to essentially show folks the overhead of the business. In most states, they are interested in only the income side of the ledger,” Demers said.
“I think compared to a lot of others, we are more open.”
Lobbyists here also report how much in campaign contributions they make to candidates or political committees.
Demers said the work of lobbyists here is more out in the open thanks to how transparent the legislative process is.
“In most states there isn’t even a requirement that a bill get voted on by the body. They don’t even have to go to a committee for a hearing in some states,” Demers said.
“Here everything gets heard, voted on by committee and dealt with by the whole legislative body up or down. I believe it’s the most transparent system in the country. As lobbyists we have to be up front about how we are advocating for our clients, where elsewhere, a lot more can happen in the shadows.”
New Hampshire’s laws, however, do not require any lobbyist to identify any legislation they’ve been hired to try to influence.
Massachusetts and Maine both require their lobbyists to spell out how their fees correspond to legislation they’ve been hired to follow.
In this state such a mandate wouldn’t be practical, Demers said.
“Let’s take this year, 1,100 pieces of legislation, and in our case, we are monitoring probably more than half of them,” Demers said.
“This would be a reporting nightmare for all of us to have to do that and it wouldn’t reveal anything more than a laundry list.”
Clegg said the state should require lobbyists to report what they are being paid in real time — not months after the fact.
“A lot needs to be fixed, but I think the most important change would be that all lobbyists should have open books about what’s coming in and what’s going out. Why shouldn’t the public know right away that an employer is paying a lobbyist $50,000?” Clegg said.
Guinta, a clinic lobbyist
Here were some other notable fees within these reports.
Former U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta was paid $60,000 to represent Granite Recovery Centers of New Hampshire, which has 12 drug rehab locations in the state.
After losing his congressional seat in 2016, Guinta joined ML Strategies, a lobbying unit housed within the Boston law firm Mintz Levin.
Burgess Biopower LLC paid more than $136,000 to the Concord lobbying firm headed by James Bianco, which appeared to be money well-spent.
Last spring, Sununu vetoed a bill extending subsidies to six wood and trash-burning power plants across the state.
The Republican-led Legislature ultimately overrode Sununu’s veto to continue those subsidies.
Sununu signed a separate bill for Burgess alone that extended its North County subsidies for another three years.
This was the first-full year for an enhanced lobbying team working for the Maine-based Preti Flaherty law firm that included former Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican and ex-Sen. Andrew Hosmer, a Laconia Democrat.
The firm received nearly $310,000 in fees last year from nine clients including the NH Medical Society and Theater Owners of New England.