By Jacob Engels
A sea change is coming to Tallahassee all because of the avaricious actions of one major lobbying firm in the State capital. The Orlando Sentinel first highlighted the manipulation of lobbying filings by the Southern Strategy Group to make the firm appear bigger and more prosperous than they are in a effort to both enlist even more business and to get key employees to take “stock” in the company instead of larger compensation.
Legislative leaders, always concerned about public perception of the ethical working of state government, did not react well to the Sentinel’s revelations. Senate President Don Gaetz was first to call for audits in response to these media reports that one of Florida’s largest lobbying firms had inflated their numbers and falsely reported income in the second quarter of 2013 to attempt to gain a competitive edge over their competitors.
House Speaker Will Weatherford was quick to agree. President Gaetz’s office after releasing the statement calling for the audits also offered to the Orlando Sentinel that SSG’s Senior Executive, Paul Bradshaw, had “asked his office for a meeting to discuss the audit requirements following last months reports”. This fallout from legislative leadership and the media will soon see comprehensive audits for all lobbyists in Florida.
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. 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.
It is unlawful to report false information and, up until last week, audits were not required to verify the accuracy of the numbers.
While most lobbyists are putting a positive public spin these previously unenforced audit provisions, SSG’s colleagues are understandably unhappy. “If your numbers are honest than you have nothing to worry about.” said one long-time Tallahassee insider “The prospect of an audit is never good, even the larger firms are basically small businesses. It’s scary when forensic auditors are scanning your books, I don’t care how careful you are. Plus, this doesn’t exactly help with how the public perceives our industry.” Jennifer Green, past chair of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists came to the industry’s defense stating “contrary to what seems to be routinely reported in the press, lobbyists are not inherently bad people who wake up each day intending to mislead and cause chaos”.
As one lobbyist with one of the smaller lobbying firms told the East Orlando Post “You know most of us work hard and represent our clients as best we can. We also abide by the law. I help some very good companies and clients navigate the government sector. This is a tough enough business already and it strikes me how arrogant and unethical it is for one fat cat to lie about their earnings to make themselves look even bigger in some vain attempt to impress someone who is impressed by this kind of thing. If you’re willing to lie when it doesn’t make you any real money and breaks the law, imagine what you’d do to keep a contract.”
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