By Jacob Engels
That strange grumbling sound you hear near the Capitol in Tallahassee? It’s the sound of insiders grumbling over recent seemingly inflated client compensation reports by one of Florida’s largest lobbying firms- the Southern Strategy Group. Lobbying firms in Florida are required to fill out quarterly reports of who their clients are and what compensation they receive on a quarterly basis. They can split their compensation between legislative and executive and are required to file within ranges. Florida takes “government in the sunshine” seriously. An element of this is the reporting that shows how much private and public entities pay to influence the legislature and executive branch. It allows reporters and others to connect the dots between special interests and public policy. It is unlawful to report false information however there are no required audits to verify the accuracy of the numbers.
Mainstream outlets such as the Orlando Sentinel have begun to take notice at several (but especially one) of the inconsistent reports. Southern Strategy Group (SSG) is one of Florida’s largest lobbying firms and by all measurement seem to manipulating their reports to appear more successful than they really are. Why? It’s simple really, reporters publish these results and the top firms use these “unbiased” results to show that they are the most successful firm in Florida. It, in turn, helps them sign up more clients. For the most part the top 4 or 5 have remained pretty constant with steady growth depending on the year, economy etc…
That is up until now.
Comfortably ensconced in the top 5 for the past couple of years, the folks at SSG have clearly had enough of this middle of the pack thing. You don’t have to be a forensic accountant to figure this out. A sharp pencil, a calculator and about an hour of time you’ll never get back, it becomes all too clear. Since the first quarter of 2011 things have been pretty consistent at SSG. Historically speaking, the difference between the first and second quarters were losers but it evened out in the end.
Not this year.
With no exponential growth to speak of either in clients or staff, SSG has increased their average revenues by a whopping $520,000. That is an average income growth that is unheard of in the lobbying world. It was achieved by “doubling” the range on the legislative side from $1-$10 to $10-20, or “doubling” their total numbers from $10-$20 to $30-$50 (or more) over 50 times. An additional 10 gave more modest increases. In the lobbying universe, many are complaining that this growth is unprecedented without some corresponding merger or other factor to explain why such a high percentage of clients would give a raise at exactly the same time and by exactly the same amounts.
“Impossible, it’s completely inflated” said one Tallahassee lobbyist. “We should have predicted that Firms would manipulate these numbers to gain a competitive advantage. It really creates a competitive disadvantage for us with smaller books of business and does not help with the perception that it’s all about money in politics. It further increases the likelihood of audits, which is what we all dreaded the most. There are very few businesses that are required to disclose the actual value of contracts between two private corporations. It is ironic that this may happen because one of the larger firms got greedy and claimed to make more money than they already do. Good lord, it’s already a ton of money, what’s the end goal here? Now we are all going to have to get audited.”
A review of Florida’s other top lobby shops, Greenberg -Traurig, Ballard and Partners and Johnson,Blanton and Associates and Capital City Associates did not show this pattern of manipulating numbers to appear larger than they are.
So why do I take the time to raise this seemingly trivial school yard bragging by a Tallahassee lobbying firm trying to one up the competition? Simple, the public has a right to know if their government is for sale and the best measuring stick is tracking lobbyist compensation reports. If lobbyists like SSG’s Paul Bradshaw have their way, we will have an exaggerated and distorted view of the truth. If they get away with this, more Firm’s will do the same in an attempt to lure more clients. As more do it, the press will proclaim huge increases in business’s spending on lobbying when in fact it’s nothing more than a brazen attempt at shameless self promotion.
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post. Along with the Post, he owns several other businesses and is currently enrolled at Valencia College. Jacob has lived in Avalon Park since it’s founding and enjoys playing with his black Labradoodle Jasper, listening to indie rock, and seeking out new business ventures. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org