The Secretary of State’s Office found reasonable cause that the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix libertarian think tank and litigation center, violated a law requiring lobbyists to register with the state.
Sambo Dul, the state elections director for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, referred the matter to the Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday.
Dul’s findings came in response to a complaint filed by an attorney with the lobbying and consulting firm HighGround, which clashed with Goldwater Institute over the issue of fees that Phoenix imposed on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft that operate at Sky Harbor International Airport.
Jeff Kros, an attorney at HighGround, filed a complaint with the secretary of state in February arguing that two Goldwater Institute employees, Jonathan Riches and Christina Sandefur, should have to register as authorized lobbyists because they testified in legislative committees in favor of a bill that would have barred cities from imposing additional fees on ride-hailing services that operate at airports. HighGround represents the City of Phoenix and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, both of which opposed the bill.
State law defines lobbying as “attempting to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation by directly communication with any legislator.” A designated lobbyist is the person who is the “single point of contact” for an entity that engages in lobbying, while an authorized lobbyist is any other person who lobbies for that entity.
The Goldwater Institute has long been an active player at the Capitol, and its employees testify frequently in committees. But the organization only has one person registered as a lobbyist with the secretary of state’s office, and it contends that people like Riches and Sandefur don’t need to register because they fall under various exemptions.
However, Dul concluded that none of the exemptions applied, and said Riches and Sandefur should have registered as authorized lobbyists for the Goldwater Institute.
The Goldwater Institute argued that Riches and Sandefur were testifying as experts on the issues at hand, and therefore fell under a lobbyist registration exemption for people who testify to provide technical information or answer technical questions. But Dul rejected that claim.
“Based on the content of their testimony, Mr. Riches and Ms. Sandefur were not acting in the capacity of individuals who provide technical information, but rather that of policy advocates urging legislators to adopt a desired position,” Dul wrote.
State law exempts “natural persons” who speak only for themselves from registering as lobbyists. And even though Riches and Sandefur registered as supporters of the bill representing themselves, they identified themselves in their testimony with their titles at the Goldwater Institute and repeatedly referenced “we” or “our” position on the legislation.
While there is an exemption for lawyers who are representing clients, Dul found that Riches and Sandefur, both of whom are attorneys, were not actually representing clients when they testified. And though there’s an exemption for members of an association, she concluded that the exemption wasn’t applicable in this case.
And Dul rejected the Goldwater Institute’s argument that requiring it to register employees who testify in legislative committees as lobbyists would infringe on its First Amendment freedom of expression or its right to participate in government.
“In this case, requiring the Goldwater Institute to list employees as lobbyists before those employees appear before committees is minimally intrusive, and would do nothing to limit their access to the committees or the ability to communicate their desired message,” Dul wrote.
Dul noted that, in order to register additional employees as lobbyists, an organization such as the Goldwater Institute that is already registered with the secretary of state need only fill out an online form and submit it within five days of the lobbying activity.
Kros was pleased with the secretary of state’s findings.
“All we think is everybody should follow the same rules,” he said, echoing a complaint that some lobbyists at the Capitol have voiced about the Goldwater Institute for years.
The Goldwater Institute disagreed with Dul’s findings and is still reviewing them, spokeswoman Jennifer Tiedemann told Arizona Mirror. Tiedemann said the nonprofit organization engages in policy analysis, education and litigation, and its employees spend the bulk of their time developing and analyzing policy and litigating cases.
“We have one employee who lobbies for Goldwater, and she is registered. On rare occasions, other staffers come to the Capitol at her request to provide expert testimony, but they are not lobbyists. And, of course, none of these employees are making lobbying expenditures, which is the primary purpose of the lobbying registration statutes,” Tiedemann said.
The Attorney General’s Office confirmed that it received Dul’s referral, which will be handled by its governmental accountability unit. Attorney General Mark Brnovich worked for the Goldwater Institute from 2003-2005. Spokesman Ryan Anderson said Brnovich won’t be involved in the investigation, and noted that the attorney general has clashed several times with the Goldwater Institute in recent years.
If the attorney general finds that the Goldwater Institute must register its employees and it fails to do so, it could face a fine of up to $1,000. Knowingly violating the lobbyist registration requirement is a class one misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
The Goldwater Institute has long resisted calls to register its employees as lobbyists. It registered one person for the first time in 2011, but declined a request by then-Secretary of State Ken Bennett to register more of its employees. Over the past decade, there have been times when the institute had multiple employees registered as lobbyists at the same time. Currently, only Jenna Bentley, the organization’s director of government affairs, is registered as a lobbyist.