By Laurel Rosenhall
Published: Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 – 8:22 am

Interest groups that spend the most money trying to influence policy in California’s Capitol spend the bulk of it in secret, including hiring former politicians as consultants and launching ad campaigns to push their agenda with virtually no financial disclosure.

Despite state laws that require detailed reporting of payments to registered lobbyists and activities such as wining and dining lawmakers, the largest share of what the big labor unions, trade groups, health care and energy companies spend to influence public officials falls into a mysterious category that requires no detailed reporting to authorities.

State law allows groups that hire lobbyists to report spending on scores of activities that are related to lobbying – but do not meet the legal definition of lobbying – as a single lump sum. In this category, listed as “other payments to influence” on disclosure forms, groups report how much they are spending, but not what they’re spending it on.

The “other” category can cover myriad expenditures, from the heating bill in a lobbyist’s office to hiring former legislators not formally registered as lobbyists to pull strings inside the Capitol. Among them: former Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, former Assembly Speakers Willie Brown and Fabian Núñez, and former Assemblymen Alberto Torrico, Jim Brulte and Rusty Areias.

Some strike out on their own, while others attach themselves to existing lobbying firms, many of which offer a combination of services that don’t require public disclosure including legal advice, political strategy and communications.

In reports interest groups file with the state, spending on office overhead – such as rent and phone bills – is lumped together with salaries for employees who support lobbyists but do not meet the technical definition of being lobbyists themselves. The “other” category also includes spending on more overt efforts to gain clout, including ad campaigns, grass-roots advocacy and contracts with politically connected consultants.

But because itemized reporting is not required, it is difficult to connect the consultants and PR blitzes with the groups that are paying for them.

It’s a departure from the rigorous reporting California requires of political campaigns during elections, when they must detail spending in several categories, including postage, television time and individual consultants. It also defies the spirit of the state’s Political Reform Act, which was meant to shine light on the interactions between government and the interests attempting to influence it.

“When we ask lobbying firms and lobbying employers what it is they’re spending money on, it’s so we can identify the means they use to influence legislative or administrative action,” said Phillip Ung, an advocate with the watchdog group California Common Cause.

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