See Which Special Interests Pay for Influence in Philly

New lobbying law offers glimpse into the city's backrooms.

New lobbyist disclosure statements filed recently with the city’s Board of Ethics offer a first-ever look at how special interests attempt to influence policy in Philadelphia behind the scenes. The reports, which cover the first quarter of 2012, don’t contain any huge revelations, and many of the filings appear to be incomplete. Still there are some fascinating nuggets.

According to the new records, 89 separate entities—from corporations as big as McDonald’s and Microsoft to non-profits as provincial as the Committee of 70—have officially registered as “principals,” meaning they either directly lobby city government themselves or hire professionals to do so on their behalf. Of those, only half reported spending $2,500 or more on their Philadelphia lobbying expenses, which is the threshold for filing a detailed quarterly report.

The other half spent a reported $730,000 on direct lobbying expenses, gifts and public relations campaigns designed to sway opinion on local public policy questions.

The biggest spender by far was Big Soda. Nearly a third of all reported expenses, $239,000, was spent by the American Beverage Association to ensure that Mayor Nutter’s twice-proposed tax on sugary drinks didn’t come up a third time. Most of that cash, $224,000, was spent on what the Board of Ethics classifies as “indirect communication,” which in this case included print advertisements, an anti-soda tax website and a social media campaign. In its filing, the association reported contacting all 17 council members.

Comcast waged another high-dollar campaign, spending $33,000 lobbying to prevent the resurrection of a paid sick leave bill, which cleared council last year only to be vetoed by Mayor Nutter.

But don’t assume that big corporations are doing all the talking. The reports reveal that the city’s non-profits actively lobby City Council and the administration as well, though they tend to spend far less than the big for-profit interests.

The Pennsylvania Association of Community Development Corporations spent $13,500 lobbying for vacant land reform and higher budgets for city economic development departments. Community Legal Services, PathWays PA (a homeless women’s advocacy group) and arts institutions like the Kimmel Center and the Philadelphia Museum of Art each spent more than $2,500, triggering the requirement to file a detailed report.

But in quite a few cases these reports aren’t at all as detailed as the Ethics Board wants them to be. According to the board’s extensive written regulations, lobbying interests are required to detail exactly who they are lobbying, and for what purpose. Some interests either did not understand that, or are reluctant to divulge that information.

The Mechanical Trades District Council of Delaware Valley, which counts as president none other than electricians union chief John Dougherty, reported spending just $6,000, but on those spots where the Ethics Board asks for a “specific subject matter” and “position taken” and “name of city official and agency” being lobbied, the district council responded with one word: “numerous.”

Which lobbyists are getting all this business? Exactly who you’d expect: representatives of the firms who have been patrolling City Hall for years. The powerful S.R. Wodjak & Associates had the most clients, according to the reports, including Microsoft, SugarHouse, Zipcar, and many of the registered arts and tourism interests.

Larry Ceisler’s firm had a share of three of the biggest spenders, namely the American Beverage Association, Walmart (re: a store location) and PGW (re: a possible sale of the gas utility).

Other firms and independent lobbyists that came up more than once included Dick Hayden, Greenlee Partners, Pugliese Associates, John J. Egan Jr. and Kleinbard (a law firm with a lobbying business).

All of those firms do plenty of business outside of City Hall, but even so, the fact that they are splitting a total of only $622,000 between them in the busiest legislative quarter of the year suggests either that there is less money being spent to influence policy in the city than might have been expected, or there is still a lot of money that is not yet being reported.

The Ethics Board hasn’t exactly made it easy for lobbyists and special interest to comply with the law. In May, the board and the city mothballed a failed two-year-old project to create an online lobbyist filing system. For now, that means lobbyists and the interests they represent are filing on paper, and the Ethics Board is merely uploading unsearchable PDFs of those filings to their website.