The Portland Business Alliance, one of the region’s most powerful trade groups, violated the city’s lobbying rules a whopping 25 times over the course of 2020, according to an investigation by the city auditor’s office.
The auditor’s office informed the alliance Monday that officials had discovered a spate of violations after launching a review of possible undisclosed lobbying efforts by the group. That review began in February after an inquiry by OPB to the auditor’s office into why the Alliance’s most recent lobbying report mentioned a series of meetings and telephone calls, but no emails.
The alliance serves as the region’s chamber of commerce and regularly lobbies for local business interests at City Hall.
The slew of violations racked up by the group comes with a maximum penalty of $75,000. The auditor’s office can issue a fine of up to $3,000 for each violation.
But the auditor’s office fined the alliance just $450 total. They also recommended the alliance staff get trained on how to comply with lobbying rules.
Louise Hansen, the city’s elections officer, said the small sum, is, in part, because it had been seven years since the alliance had been dinged for lobbying violations and this notice was meant to be “a new warning.” According to the notice, the group last received a lobby warning in 2014 and had since experienced a change in leadership.
She also said the office also rarely issues fines for these violations, but, in this case, “it wasn’t a quantity of violations where we could overlook the matter and simply issue another warning.”
Hansen said the city auditor’s office has only ever issued one other fine for lobbying violations. That was a $2,000 fine issued in 2016 to Uber.
All groups that spend more than $1,000 or eight hours on City Hall lobbying efforts in a three-month period are required to fill out reports detailing all contacts they had with city officials. The alliance regularly surpasses that threshold and files quarterly reports noting relevant meetings and telephone calls. Over the course of 2020, they reported 76 meetings and 85 phone calls.
But the influential association appears to have been much more lax in reporting written correspondence. In 2020, the alliance has reported two emails, one text, and no letters.
In an emailed statement, the alliance said close communication between a chamber of commerce and city staff was to be expected, particularly during a year as dire as 2020.
“We take our role in this public-private partnership very seriously. We will be carefully reviewing this letter and transparently working with the auditor’s office to clarify each and every exchange.”
In the course of the review, the auditor dredged up a host of unreported correspondence they say should have been reported. The emails and texts, reviewed by OPB, show the alliance pushing for action and, in some cases funding, on a host of issues the group wanted to see movement on including post-protest clean up in the Pearl District, the removal of the unreinforced masonry building database, and speedier permitting.
The review states that the alliance benefitted from these undisclosed efforts, notably securing more funding for a “downtown retail advocate” position. According to the alliance’s website, that position supports retailers in the city’s core and receives funding from both the city and the business group.
On October 28, during a council session to suggest changes to the budget approved in June, Wheeler proposed $20,000 in funding for the position.
The same day, Jon Isaacs, the vice president for the alliance, texted Wheeler’s deputy chief of staff, pushing for $5,000 more. According to the alliance, the position had traditionally been funded at $25,000.
“Can you help me understand the point of shorting us 5k on the downtown retail advocate. We confirmed 25k no less than 4 times,” he wrote. “I just don’t get it.”
Budget records show the city ultimately allowed $25,000 for the position.
The auditor’s office indicates in its notice that alliance staff should have known to comply: Not only are they a “well-established lobbying entity” that has been subject to the same rules for years, but they also employ at least one former city official who used to be subject to lobbying disclosure regulations.
The alliance’s lobbying report lists contact information for Amy Rathfelder, a former aide to Wheeler. Rathfelder left her position as manager for the mayor’s reelection campaign last fall to take a job as the alliance’s director of government affairs.