Lobbyists caught lying could soon be looking for a new line of work — and maybe even find themselves behind bars.
Without dissent, the Senate Committee on Government Institutions approved a plan Thursday to make it a crime for someone who is a registered lobbyist to knowingly provide false information to any public official. Offenders found guilty would be subject to up to six months in jail.
But the real penalty in SB1208 — one that would be mandatory — would be far more costly: Anyone convicted of the offense would be required to surrender to the state all the fees collected from the client on whose behalf the false information was provided. And then the offender would be barred from lobbying for anyone at all for three years.
Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said her proposal was not necessary when she first served in the Legislature between 1978 and 1994. That was before voters imposed term limits on lawmakers.
"Lobbyists who had been around the Legislature a long time really valued their reputations,'' she said.
"They knew that their reputations with legislators had to stand the test of time,'' McCune Davis explained. More to the point, she said, the lobbyists knew that they would have to deal with that same lawmaker over and over again on many different issues, and for many different clients.
McCune Davis, who came back to the Capitol after winning a seat in 2002, said she has since found a few lobbyists "who kind of suppressed information about their clients and their clients' business practices in order to move bills through the system, taking advantage of new members who were new to the system, who hadn't yet established relationships and gotten a feel for who you could rely on and who you could not.''
She did not name names. But McCune Davis told colleagues about one incident where a lobbyist, responding to a question, said that his client had never been sued over any business practices. That was not true, she said, as lawmakers found out when they got a copy of the court case.
"There was all kinds of information about the business practices that legislators, had they known about them, would probably have taken a different attitude about the bill that was being presented to them,'' she said.
If nothing else, McCune Davis said providing some disincentive for lobbyists to lie will mean that lawmakers won't have to defend themselves for voting a particular way on certain issues when it turns out they didn't have all the information.
McCune Davis said it would be up to prosecutors to decide whether a false statement made to lawmakers was done knowingly. But she said presenting evidence to a court should not prove difficult: All legislative hearings now are both televised and archived.
The law would apply only to lobbyists who are paid by someone else to deal with lawmakers. It would not affect individuals who testify at hearings on their own behalf.
Thursday's 7-0 vote sends the measure to the full Senate.