Public-land Transfer Proponents May Have Violated Lobbying Laws

Photo: Rick Bowmer, AP

By: Joshua Zaffos, High Country News, 10/20/15

The central organization that advocates for Western states to take over federal public lands, Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory’s American Lands Council, is apparently running roughshod over state legislative rules.

The Colorado Secretary of State announced last week that it has “reasonable grounds to believe” the ALC may have violated state lobbying and disclosure rules for failing to report political spending or to register as a lobbyist. The ALC, which leads the West-wide movement to transfer federal lands to states’ control, emailed Colorado supporters this spring to build backing for a bill that would have created a county commissioner-led task force to study the benefits of public-lands transfer to the state of Colorado. (The Senate bill failed by one vote.) The ALC has ushered similar bills through nearly every Western state legislature, with varying success.

The notice of possible violations followed an April complaint from Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group. When the secretary of state inquired, Ivory said he sent the emails to galvanize support around the land transfer task force at the request of Colorado state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg. Thus, Ivory believed, the emails “did not constitute lobbying.” However, further email, postal mail and phone requests for information, including how the ALC raises funds and what sorts of dues member counties pay the organization, went unanswered. Eventually, Ivory explained his silence, claiming “the ALC had a new office manager who took the letter to (Ivory’s) house and left it under the doormat,” and Ivory “just now found it.”

Ivory’s explanation doesn’t hold water, according to Luis Toro, Colorado Ethics Watch director. “If, as it appeared, any staff time was used to create this email to urge Coloradans to contact their legislators on this bill,” Toro said, “that meets the definition of lobbying in Colorado and triggers reporting requirements.” The state will now take another 30 days to investigate the case and could charge the ALC with a misdemeanor willful lobbying violation or sanction the group to halt outreach efforts in the state.

“This kind of complaint is so rare because it’s not a particularly onerous requirement (to register as a lobbyist),” Toro said. “I can only imagine that once they’ve been caught, they don’t want to admit that they did something wrong.”

The ALC office and Kane County, Utah commissioner Doug Heaton – chair-elect of the ALC’s board of directors, according to its website – did not return calls from High Country News.

The Ethics Watch complaint and rebuke from the Secretary of State is just the ALC’s latest political action being questioned by watchdog groups.

This past June, a new, D.C.-based ethics group, Campaign for Accountability, filed a separate set of complaints against Ivory and the ALC in Utah, Arizona and Montana. The complaints allege the organization is bilking counties out of tens of thousands of dollars by “falsely claiming the federal government can be forced to transfer public lands to states,” and the campaign’s executive director has called Ivory a “snake-oil salesman.” (This spring, I wrote about another organization, American Stewards of Liberty, which has also solicited funds from counties for trainings, with pledges of increased local control and management of federal lands.)

So far, only Montana’s attorney general has responded to the false-claims complaints, finding no grounds for an investigation. But the ALC already muddied its trail in Montana after employing a lobbyist who was working as a legislative aide for state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a leading proponent of the transfer movement. State legislative rules prohibit legislative staff from lobbying, and the aide was asked to resign. He continues to work for Ivory’s group and cause.

Since 2012, the ALC has stepped up its official lobbying efforts and registered lobbyists in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Montana, as well as Washington, D.C. Those campaigns have led to study bills, similar to the one that failed in Colorado. Most notably, Utah lawmakers passed a law demanding the return of federal lands to the state by the end of 2014. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in June that “Utah now is investing $2 million to advance the fight in the halls of Congress,” and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, is also forwarding the public-lands transfer agenda at the Capitol.

The effects of a land transfer would differ widely across Western states. Yet several independent analyses and reports have concluded that transferring public lands to the states would generally mean a sharp increase in development on those lands to keep up with costs, and many scholars consider the entire concept unconstitutional. And, meanwhile, watchdogs and environmentalists say the fast and loose approach to outreach at state legislatures shows disregard for the states that the ALC claims to want to help and represent.

“We have a lobbyist sunshine law for a reason and that’s (because) ordinary people don’t get to spend money to influence legislators on bills, so we want to know who is spending money to influence our legislators’ votes,” Toro said. “It’s very important that groups not be allowed to get around the system. It’s not a hard law to comply with.”