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Baltimore City Council bill would tighten restrictions on lobbyists, require forms go online

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, speaking in this file photo, plans to introduce a bill that tighten restrictions on lobbyists.
Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, speaking in this file photo, plans to introduce a bill that tighten restrictions on lobbyists.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

City Councilman Zeke Cohen plans to introduce legislation Monday that would tighten restrictions on lobbyists in Baltimore and require the ethics board to post lobbying disclosure forms online for the public to view.

Cohen, who represents Southeast Baltimore, said the legislation comes in response to requests from constituents who feel kept in the dark about the influence of moneyed interests within city government.

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"One of the fair and legitimate knocks against Baltimore city government has been a lack of will to be transparent," Cohen said.

Cohen said he's also experienced frustration trying to figure out whom the lobbyists approaching him represent. And he watched as former state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges after going too far to help someone who approached and paid him.

Nathaniel T. Oaks pleaded guilty to two federal corruption charges this morning in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Judge Richard D. Bennett said — about two hours after Oaks formally resigned his Senate seat in the Maryland General Assembly.

"Through this legislation, we seek to strengthen local democracy. Citizens should have a louder voice in determining policies and priorities," he said. "The Nat Oaks scandal points to the need for greater transparency and a higher level of accountability for elected officials, and those who are paid to influence public policy."

Cohen's bill, called the Transparency in Lobbying Act, would require:

  • Lobbyists approaching city government officials to “affirmatively identify” who their clients are;
  • Lobbyists to file quarterly, rather than annual, disclosure reports;
  • The ethics board to post those reports online within 30 days of their filing, disclosing how much lobbyists were paid and by whom;
  • The ethics board to consider a three-year ban for any lobbyist who violates the act.

So far, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke has signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation, but Cohen said he expects more to do so soon.

A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young noted this would be the third ethics reform undertaken by city government since 2012.

A law sponsored by Young in 2016 required the city's ethics board to post on its website a searchable list of all registered lobbyists and required the city's finance department to post on its website a searchable list of all entities that have done business with city government in the past calendar year.

A bill advancing to the full City Council would require greater transparency about who is trying to influence legislation and contracts that are before city government.

In 2012, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed into law two bills designed to give the mayor less control over the ethics board: One bill gave the council president and the city comptroller the power to nominate one member each to the five-person panel, a reform of the previous system in which each member was designated by the mayor. The other bill staggered the terms of the board members, meaning a new mayor couldn't appoint a fresh slate.

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Top lobbyists in Baltimore can earn more than $100,000 a year working on bills before the City Council and contracts before the Board of Estimates. But forms showing how much they are being paid by which clients are currently kept in a box in City Hall in the offices of the Department of Legislative Reference.

"Submitting the reports online would make them easily searchable by journalists, the public and us," Cohen said. "As a city councilman, as a public official, it should be easier for me to get good information on who is being paid to influence our government."

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