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Union leaders under fire for unregistered lobbying

By   /   May 15, 2014  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Wendell Young IV spent plenty of time last year trying to convince lawmakers that privatizing Pennsylvania’s liquor stores wasn’t the correct move, yet the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 wasn’t registered as a lobbyist with the Department of State.

That fact caught the attention of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Harrisburg, after the right-leaning Media Trackers website reported on the issue earlier this week. It pounced on Young and other labor leaders who aren’t registered.

“This is the kind of arrogance that government union executives have toward the people of Pennsylvania and the law of the commonwealth,” Commonwealth Foundation President Matthew J. Brouillette said in a statement.

The issue might not be so cut and dry, even though Pennsylvania law defines lobbying as “an effort to influence legislative action or administrative action” and requires that lobbyists, lobbying firms or principals register with the state.

COUNTER ATTACK: Wendell Young IV, the president of the the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1176, contends he doesn't need to register as a lobbyist.

COUNTER ATTACK: Wendell Young IV, the president of the the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, contends he doesn’t need to register as a lobbyist.

That’s because while someone’s actions could fall under the definition of lobbying, they don’t always have to register, thanks to exceptions in Pennsylvania’s lobbying law.

Robert Caruso, executive director of the state’s Ethics Commission, said individuals don’t have to register if they lobby less than 20 hours a quarter or if their lobbying expenses don’t exceed $2,500 a quarter.

While Caruso said those are the most commonly seen exceptions, the law also gives leeway to individuals that limit their lobbying to testimony before a committee or agency and representatives of a church lobbying to protect the right to free exercise of religion, among other exclusions.

The issue has seldom come before the Ethics Commission, Caruso said, and he added it can be hard to generally say what someone can do without knowing all the variables.

“It can be a little bit tricky,” Caruso said.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s criticism also roped in Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, and David Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13.

Department of Labor documents indicated Fillman spent 15 percent of his time on political activities and lobbying in 2013, while Young spent 8 percent of his time on the same, at least raising the possibility they could be subject to registration requirements. The AFL-CIO doesn’t have to file with the federal government.

In an interview with PA Independent, Young said that while he meets with lawmakers about issues affecting his members, he doesn’t collect a paycheck to exclusively lobby. He wears “a lot of hats” as union president, he said.

“Clearly, I do lobby, but it’s not my primary function as president of the union,” Young said, comparing his role to that of corporate CEOs, who don’t have to register although they might contact state lawmakers.

Fillman didn’t return a message seeking comment, but Bloomingdale echoed Young’s sentiments. While the AFL-CIO sends letters to the Capitol, so do other corporations, Bloomingdale said.

“I’m sure the CEO of McDonald’s has sent letters on the minimum wage, but is probably not a registered lobbyist in the state of Pennsylvania,” he said.

While Bloomingdale said there is no “malicious intent” behind his lack of registration, he also said he has no problem taking that step if attorneys advise him to do so.

When learning that Gene Barr, president of Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, is registered as a lobbyist, Bloomingdale said it’s probably a good idea for him to register, too.

“We’ve got nothing to hide,” Bloomingdale said. “If we’ve got to do it, we’ll do it, and that’ll be the end of it.”

Sometimes the safe approach is best, Caruso said. Especially if someone believes strongly in a certain issue and makes repeated appearances before a lawmaker or committee to influence legislation.

The best choice then, Caruso said, is to simply register.

“We always try to tell people to err on the side of caution,” Caruso said.

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com.  Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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