Mass. lobbyists on pace to have a record year

Bring in $38m in 1st half of ’09

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / July 18, 2009
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Special interest groups, which furiously sought to shape major bills before the Legislature this year, reported more than $38 million in spending on lobbyists in the first six months of 2009 and are on track to break an all-time record, according to reports filed with the state this week.

A record 646 registered lobbyists representing more than 1,000 clients sought to influence state policy on high-profile bills on transportation, pension, taxes, and a host of other issues. New scrutiny on lobbyists, after scandals that shook Beacon Hill, also prompted more lobbyists than ever to register and file disclosure reports with the secretary of state’s office, officials said.

“It’s remarkable that in an economy that is suffering so much and with state revenues and expenditures actually down that this much money, almost $40 million, is being spent in a six-month period to influence public decisions,’’ said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office regulates lobbyists and is still tabulating the figures.

Among individual lobbyists who saw their business rise and fall in the first half of the year, a few names stand out. One is lobbyist Richard McDonough, who was indicted in June on corruption charges along with his friend, former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

McDonough still ranked third on the list of the most highly paid lobbyists, earning $215,011. But he has lost several clients since last year, including Cognos, the software company at the center of the scandal that led to the federal indictments. He also no longer represents Orbitz Worldwide, the online travel company, and the Title Appraisal Vendor Management Association, the reports showed.

While McDonough was losing clients, however, former Senate president Robert E. Travaglini was significantly building up his lobbying practice. Travaglini, who left the State House in March 2007, was the fourth-highest-paid lobbyist, earning $209,000 in the first half of the year, according to the reports.

Travaglini picked up one of McDonough’s former clients, Cambridge Health Alliance. His other clients include the real estate firm Flatley Co., the Massachusetts Hospital Association, and Suffolk Construction Co. Travaglini’s clients paid his firm $277,354 in the first half of year, nearly as much as he collected in all 2008. He has been permitted to lobby the Legislature only since March 2008, when a statutory one-year lobbying ban for former legislators expired.

Several other former lawmakers ranked among the other top earners, including former Democratic majority leader John E. Murphy Jr., former House speaker Charles F. Flaherty, former state senator David Bernstein, former state representative William Cass, and John Brennan, who served in the House and Senate.

O’Neill & Associates, a perennial money-maker, earned the most of any lobbying firm, with $927,126. Ranking second with $777,268 was ML Strategies, the lobbying arm of the law firm Mintz Levin. Among the firm’s lobbyists are former state senator Robert Havern and former Boston city councilor Paul Scapicchio.

“There are so many changes in laws and regulations being made across the board, including in the lobbying disclosure rules themselves; it’s really important for clients to have a guide through the process,’’ said ML Strategies spokeswoman Nancy Sterling. “That’s what ML Strategies and other lobbying firms offer.’’

Despite the state’s dire economic picture, spending by some interest groups, including business organizations and environmental groups, increased significantly over the same period last year. Lobbying by casino interests, which reached its height during last year’s casino debate, dropped 20 percent over the same period last year.

Jon Hurst, president of the 3,200-member Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his group spent more than ever in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent an impending sales tax increase from 5 to 6.25 percent. His group and others argued that consumers would take their business to New Hampshire or to the Internet.

“It was the biggest issue we’ve had in the past 20 years,’’ Hurst said. “Our expenditures went way up. It was important to us, because we were trying to save consumers $900 million in new sales taxes. But it goes to show spending money doesn’t always mean you’ll get the outcome you want in the Legislature.’’

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause/Massachusetts, said the stark budget realities had much to do with the lobbying activity.

“Interestingly, during an economic downturn there is often more activity at the State House as interests try to protect their funding and sort of fight for the scraps than during flush times, when it is easier to fund everyone,’’ she said.

Reports of spending are expected to increase more next year when new lobbying rules, contained in an ethics law passed in June, take effect. The rules broaden the definition of lobbyists to include consultants and advisers, and they increase fines and penalties for violations.

These changes were prompted in part by the refusal of McDonough and of DiMasi’s former accountant, Richard Vitale, to file complete lobbyist disclosure reports with Galvin’s office last year. Galvin fought to force Vitale to register as a lobbyist for his work on a behalf of a ticket brokers group seeking favorable legislation on Beacon Hill. When Vitale refused, Galvin referred the case to the attorney general’s office, which indicted Vitale in December. He is expected to go to trial this December.

Galvin had also threatened to suspend McDonough’s right to lobby after he refused to report all the money he received from Cognos. McDonough eventually reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from Cognos previously not disclosed.