- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A task force formed by the secretary of state working to clarify and strengthen Rhode Island’s lobbying statutes met for the first time Thursday.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said the executive and legislative lobbying statutes are unnecessarily complicated. She said the “broken” system needs to be more transparent.

The group’s members include lobbyists, labor groups, lawyers and organizations interested in lobbying laws, including the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union and the open government group Common Cause.

Several said they want more transparent, clear and consistent laws.

Gorbea’s transition committee recommended raising registration fees for lobbyists and increasing fines for those who don’t register. She said the task force will discuss increased fees.

Although the Department of State oversees lobbyists and lobbying activity, it can’t independently oversee and enforce the laws and charge offenders, Gorbea said. The secretary of state is not granted subpoena powers for administrative hearings, and the penalties for breaking the lobbying laws are minimal.

“Stronger laws discourage bad behavior and penalize those who willfully break the law, and renew people’s faith and trust in government,” Gorbea said.

Former Secretary of State Ralph Mollis handled hearings into possible lobbying violations related to 38 Studios, ex-Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s video game company that went bankrupt after receiving a $75 million state-backed loan. Mollis’ lawyer went to state Superior Court because the secretary of state’s office didn’t have a procedure to acquire testimony from 38 Studios consultant Michael Corso during the investigation. The lawyer ended up getting fined by the court for involving them in the matter.

Two other lobbying cases Mollis investigated are now closed.

Registered lobbyist Ray Rickman did not disclose for years that he had given a $10,000 personal loan to then-House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, who later became House speaker. Fox pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return.

Rickman amended his report, so he wasn’t fined or penalized in any other way, Gorbea said.

Mollis had also asked for information about ex-Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s interactions with his former office in an attempt to determine whether he should’ve registered as a lobbyist. Mollis did not investigate further, Gorbea said.

Gorbea said she wants a bill to overhaul the statutes to be introduced this session.

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