- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 12, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island’s secretary of state says she faces a “Catch-22” situation: She’s supposed to enforce the state’s lobbying laws, but she can’t always figure out who’s a lobbyist.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said she has questioned whether there are people and organizations lobbying in Rhode Island without registering to do so, either because they’re ignoring the law or don’t know about it.

Because she doesn’t have power to investigate, Gorbea now sends educational letters to people she thinks may be lobbying based on media reports.

Gorbea wants the General Assembly to overhaul what she describes as a “broken system” for overseeing lobbyists and lobbying activity. She suggested a new lobbying statute to provide a framework for investigations and hearings and grant her subpoena power.

Lawmakers didn’t pass the bill this session. Gorbea has sent out five educational letters, so far.

“Without proper legal investigative processes, you’re left with trying to be fairly broad in terms of outreach,” Gorbea, a Democrat, said.

David Norton received one of the letters because of his efforts to oppose plans to build a new baseball stadium in Providence for the Pawtucket Red Sox.

Norton said he’s a volunteer, not a professional lobbyist, and he felt intimidated by the letter. He agrees the lobbying laws need to change.

“If this is a good example to use to reform the law and create definitions and criteria, I’m all for it,” Norton said.

Gorbea said she would’ve approached the PawSox issue differently if the reforms had passed. The team’s owners also received a letter.

The proposed law is much clearer about what activities constitute lobbying, Gorbea said.

“I don’t think there would be that much confusion about what we’re doing and why,” she said.

Rhode Island has separate laws for executive and legislative lobbying, each with its own definitions, procedures and reporting requirements.

A task force convened by Gorbea suggested replacing those laws with a single comprehensive lobbying statute in the spring. That group included lobbyists.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said there were many other issues to deal with this legislative session and he wanted to give the lobbying reforms the appropriate amount of attention. Mattiello, a Democrat, said he will work with Gorbea to make sure it is considered more closely next year.

John Marion, executive director of the open-government group Common Cause, said it’s disappointing the General Assembly didn’t take up the proposed changes.

“It’s very clear that the statute, as it currently exists, can’t be effectively enforced by the secretary of state,” he said.

In May, Gorbea dismissed the cases against two people accused of lobbying violations in the 38 Studios deal and closed an investigation into ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. Schilling’s video game company got a $75 million state-backed loan before it went bankrupt in 2012, leaving state taxpayers on the hook.

Former U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente reviewed the cases and told Gorbea they likely wouldn’t fare well in court because of multiple procedural deficiencies in the lobbying statutes.

There have been no new hearings on any potential lobbying violations, Gorbea said.

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