Watchdog groups routinely comb through public records, state lobbyist submissions, and decisions to identify possible offenders. Earlier this year, the Politico Influence newsletter editors asked readers to keep them informed about non-registered persons sighted meeting with legislators or other covered officials. While their request seems aimed at federal employees potentially lobbying illegally in D.C., individuals and non-government-affiliated groups challenge laws and identify violators at the state level as well.
In New York, for example, watchdog groups have been in the news recently for their vocal opposition to lax campaign finance laws. The New York Public Interest Research Group and Citizens Union have noted their concerns about excessive financial relationships between legislators and private interest lobbyists. Similar groups have raised concerns about the role of a Manhattan Democratic party leader who is also an active employee of an influential lobbying firm. Citing a probable conflict of interest, the watchdog groups have asked the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, New York’s ethics agency, to investigate the matter and issue guidance.
The Energy & Policy Institute has been keeping an eye on how much interaction Ohio lawmakers have with lobbyists from the group Industrial Energy Users-Ohio (IEU-Ohio). Although no questionable activity has been reported, the watchdog group has expressed concerns about how heavily state legislators are relying on language from IEU-Ohio to create legislation. While there have not necessarily been any “gotcha!” moments, this is an example of the supplementary work that non-government groups play in keeping the public abreast of who is working with lawmakers.
Government agencies certainly track illegalities and misconduct in their own right. The input of unaffiliated groups, however, can supplement public agency reviews and bring additional issues to officials’ attention. The vast majority of people follow the law, avoiding run-ins and showing up in the news, but stories of wrongdoing still appear, and watchdog groups can play a large role in bringing attention to illegalities and misconduct.