Fine Legal Line Separates Lobbying Curbs, Free Speech

Article excerpt

Byline: Guy Taylor, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Constitution protects the right of lobbyists to spend money to influence politicians - a key hurdle prosecutors have to overcome if they want to prove that someone like Jack Abramoff or the circle of elected officials tied to him has committed a crime.

For instance, in cases involving a "quid pro quo" between a lobbyist and a lawmaker, prosecutors must have evidence showing that the transaction crossed the line between federal bribery law - which bars the offering or acceptance of anything of value in exchange for influence - and the First Amendment, which specifically protects the right to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Disgraced lobbyist Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiring to cross that line, drawing prosecutors' attention by breaking enough of the federal rules and laws governing the universe of some 14,000 active lobbyists in Washington.

Regulation of lobbyists falls generally under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995 and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The LDA states that when its provisions are violated, the secretary of the Senate or the clerk of the House must "notify the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia."

It then becomes the responsibility of the prosecutors to show evidence to a judge or jury that a crime has been committed.

Under the LDA, anyone who makes more than one "lobbying contact" - an oral or written communication seeking to influence an executive-branch official, member of Congress or congressional staffer - during a six-month period must register as a lobbyist. …