Free Press pushes back but fails to address transparency issues

Two days after The Daily Caller requested comment from Free Press for a story about the group’s violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the pro-net neutrality nonprofit that has repeatedly criticized the FCC for its opaque dealings with the telecommunications industry finally decided to respond.

“An online publication that will go unnamed and unlinked has accused Free Press of hypocrisy, claiming that as we criticize the Federal Communications Commission for secret meetings, we hide evidence of our own advocacy activity in violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act,” wrote Free Press Policy Counsel Chris Riley on SaveTheInternet.com.

Riley’s response came after TheDC published two stories detailing Free Press’s efforts at obscuring meetings with officials who could directly affect broadband policy. According to publicly available documents obtained by TheDC, several Free Press employees are engaged in direct lobbying of the FCC, Congress and the NTIA, but have not registered as lobbyists. This has allowed Free Press to drastically under-report the amount it spends on direct lobbying.

Riley’s post fails to refute a single one of the discrepancies brought to light by information obtained from Free Press’s IRS returns, its lobbying reports, e-mails obtained via FOIA or previous press reports which note Free Press’s involvement in the crafting of two separate House bills introduced by two different congressmen.

“The author’s assertion is that Free Press is somehow being secretive and hiding evidence of activity – and uses as proof of that secrecy our publicly filed ex parte notices at the Commission,” Riley writes. “The author collected publicly available documents filed by Free Press to document our FCC activity, and used that information to assert that we are not being public about our FCC activity. The argument is self-contradicting.”

Actually, the point of both stories was to highlight the dissonance between what Free Press says, and what Free Press does. The group lashes corporate interests for meeting in secret with bureaucrats, then meets both privately and in secret with bureaucrats. No contradiction there, at least, not on the part of TheDC.

According to the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), direct lobbying is “any oral or written communication (including an electronic communication) to a covered executive branch official or a covered legislative branch official made on behalf of a client with regard to the formulation, modification, or adoption of a federal rule, regulation, Executive order, or any other program, policy, or position of the United States government.”

That’s the law. Not an interpretation, but the actual text of the law. Is Free Press representing an “evil” corporation? No. Does it still have clients? According to the LDA, “an organization employing its own lobbyists is considered its own client for reporting purposes.” So yes, Free Press still has a client. Not to mention that every cent the organization solicits comes from individuals and groups that have a vested interest in the passage of net neutrality.

While Riley offhandedly argued in his post that he could “make other observations” about the “difference between lobbyists whose job is to advance the parochial commercial goals of a business, and those few advocates employed by nonprofit organizations who try to do their best to put the public’s interest first,” the Lobbying Disclosure Act makes no such distinction between supposedly kind-hearted nonprofit outfits and corporations.

Riley goes on: “Free Press has one registered lobbyist … Why aren’t more Free Press staff registered lobbyists? The rule says that a registered lobbyist is someone who has more than one lobbying contact in any three month period, and spends 20 percent or more of the person’s time engaged in lobbying activities.”