Eight lobbyists faced legal threat from ethics watchdog

Eight lobbyists were threatened with court proceedings last year by the ethics watchdog over alleged breaches of regulations, the Irish Examiner can reveal.

Furthermore, since 2017 the Standards in Public Office (Sipo) has imposed over 1,000 fines on lobbyists who made late returns on their activities, under powers granted with the 2015 Regulation of Lobbying Act.

A Sipo spokesperson told the Irish Examiner that the watchdog last year launched eight prosecution proceedings against registrants for failure to comply with the Act’s reporting obligations.

Of these, six were resolved through compliance — which included the payment of associated penalties for late filing — while the other two cases remain active.

It said it has assessed “dozens” of reports of possible unregistered lobbying activity which led to 26 formal investigations. Half of those cases were closed after the person at the centre of the investigation complied or it was found that there had been no breach.

The other 13 investigations are continuing.

The Regulation of Lobbying Act was introduced in 2015 in an effort to provide greater transparency as to what advocates were contacting politicians and why.

It requires people who communicate with designated public officials to register and submit regular returns of their lobbying activity to Sipo, which publish the returns online.

Sipo was granted enforcement powers under the act in 2017.

It has the power to investigate offences including lobbying without registering, failing to make a return on lobbying activity to the register, and obstructing a Sipo investigation.

The commission can also impose fixed payment penalties of €200 for the submission of late returns.

“Since the commencement of the act’s enforcement provisions, the commission has levied just over 1,000 fixed payment notices for late returns,” said a Sipo spokesperson.

“It has also pursued registrants who have failed to make a return for a reporting period.

“Where a registrant fails to comply with the return requirements, the commission seeks to engage with them to identify whether the person is actually required to register, or whether their communication is exempt. Where a person is required to register, we seek to bring them into compliance.”

The watchdog said its goal is to seek compliance with the act and that it therefore does not bring court proceedings against a lobbyist once they are compliant with regulations.

“Prosecution proceedings are initiated as a last resort where attempts to bring the person into compliance have not been successful,” said Sipo.

“In 2018, eight prosecution proceedings were launched against registrants for failure to comply with the act’s reporting obligations.

“Of those, six have been resolved through compliance, including payment of any associated penalties for late filing. Two cases are ongoing.”

Sipo said details of its investigations last year under the Regulation of Lobbying Act will be available in its annual report for 2018, which is expected this summer.

Its 2017 annual report revealed that health was the policy area most lobbied about, followed by economic development and industry, agriculture, justice and equality, and housing.

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