- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly have passed a bill that would reform lobbying rules found to be deficient after the state’s disastrous deal with video game company 38 Studios.

The Senate passed the bill by a 36-0 vote on Thursday evening.

The House passed its version of the same legislation on Tuesday. Both chambers will have to vote again before the bill heads to Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Democratic Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea drafted the legislation and said in an interview Thursday that it could make Rhode Island a national model for lobbying registration and disclosure.

It also would give her office more authority to investigate and sanction lobbyists who break the rules.

“The current law has no way to legally investigate someone who should be a registered lobbyist, and is lobbying, but who hasn’t done the process,” she said.

Gorbea said that problem arose when the state was unable to pursue people accused of lobbying violations surrounding the $75 million deal with 38 Studios, the failed video game company started by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.

Gorbea’s predecessor ordered ex-38 Studios director Thomas Zaccagnino and attorney Michael Corso to file retroactive lobbying reports or face a $2,000 fine. Both appealed to Superior Court.

Gorbea dismissed the case after taking office last year and being advised by former U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente that she had little standing to pursue it.

“He looked at it and said, ‘You can argue this all the way through but you’re going to lose because there’s nothing in the law that gives you the legal power,’” she said Thursday.

The reform measure also increases the penalties for breaking the rules. And it simplifies and clarifies what Gorbea described as a “tortured” lobbying registration process.

“It eliminates the distinction between legislative and executive lobbying, which was confusing,” said Greg Mancini, a lobbyist for construction industry group Build Rhode Island who sat on Gorbea’s lobbying reform task force last year. “The biggest thing it provides is clarity and certainty.”

Some lobbyists were reluctant to support the legislation when Gorbea first proposed it last year but came around after she made some changes. Among the changes was reducing the ability for her office to directly subpoena people after critics said it could allow an elected secretary of state to use the power as a way to generate headlines.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Robert Jacquard, a Cranston Democrat, said it passed so smoothly this week because of a consensus that reforms were needed.

“The lobbyists had some input into it,” he said. “They wanted it to be practical enough for them to be able to follow the requirements of the new law without inadvertently failing to meet them.”

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