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New city ethics regulations face first challenges

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/041208/met_267642192.shtml.

The Florida Times-Union
April 12, 2008
By BETH KORMANIK,
The Times-Union

The city's Ethics Commission believes the rules are clear: Lobbyists must list the individual clients and issues that they represent.

But nine lobbyists who registered with the city failed to disclose their clients - including attorney Paul Harden, who sent a letter to Ethics Officer Carla Miller on Monday arguing that he did not have to list anyone.

It's the first test of new ethics regulations that went into effect Jan. 1, and the commission met in a special session Friday to decide how to respond.

"We need to be firm in our response," Chairman Jay Williams said. " 'This is what's going on now. Sorry.' "

Violators face a $25 fine or 10 days in jail, although State Attorney Harry Shorstein told the Times-Union last month that prosecuting violations would be a low priority.

For now, the commission plans to send a letter explaining the law and inviting Harden and others to its April 28 meeting.

"We have a new code and these are the new rules," member Renee Naughton said. "We want to enforce the rules. All the other lobbyists have complied, and we cannot afford you preferential treatment."

In his letter, Harden said he has listed his clients as "various clients and issues" on lobbyist registration forms for 23 years.

"Apparently, for at least 23 years, this has been interpreted to provide full compliance."

The Ethics Code says a lobbyist violates the code when he or she "fails or refuses to disclose on a current registration statement, either originally or as corrected or amended, any principal on whose behalf the lobbyist has performed, is performing or will be required by the terms of a present agreement to perform lobbying activities."

In an interview, Harden said he believes he is meeting the letter of the law.

"My clients aren't private," he said. "I stand up in front of City Council every week, and it isn't any secret who I'm representing."

Harden often represents developers in land-use issues. Recently, he represented Moody Land Co., which was part of a controversial deal to build high-rise condominiums along the Intracoastal Waterway at the foot of the Atlantic Boulevard bridge.

He also said the Ethics Commission has no authority to enforce the law.

Members of the Ethics Commission acknowledged lax enforcement of lobbyist registration over the years. But beginning Jan. 10, Ethics Officer Carla Miller began advising lobbyists of the new rules in letters.

Miller said the goal is to let people know who is lobbying on behalf of which interests. Simply listing "various clients and issues" doesn't provide any disclosure, she said.

The commission also plans to notify the City Council and the Mayor's Office of their obligations to make sure lobbyists are registered. Otherwise, they could face the same penalties, according to the commission.

Naughton said she expects the administration and the council to set an ethical tone.

"This is our new code," she said. "Are we going to be a city that has an ethics code or not?"

[email protected], (904) 359-4619

WHO IS PAULHARDEN?

Paul Harden is an attorney who often represents developers in land-use issues. Recently, he represented Moody Land Co., which was part of a controversial deal to build high-rise condominiums along the Intracoastal Waterway at the foot of the Atlantic Boulevard bridge.

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