Why it Doesn’t Matter Whether Celia Roady is a “Lobbyist”

Celia Roady, the Morgan Lewis tax partner who posed the now-infamous planted question regarding IRS targeting of conservative groups at an ABA conference, “focuses her practice on tax and governance issues affecting tax-exempt organizations, including charities, foundations, colleges and universities, museums, and other nonprofit organizations,” according to the Morgan Lewis website.

Roady has also been described by news reports as a “lobbyist,” but that is not quite right. She was registered in 2005 and 2006 to lobby for two clients, the Schwab Fund for Charitable Giving and the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program. In both cases the subject of the lobbying was “tax treatment of donor-advised funds of charitable organizations” and in both cases the lobbying registration was terminated on January 19, 2007. Thereafter Roady was not registered to lobby for any client, and thus no longer a “lobbyist.” Or at least a “registered lobbyist.”

Roady’s lobbying reports reflect contacts only with the Senate Finance Committee and Joint Committee on Taxation. One might therefore assume that she had no discussions with executive branch agencies regarding the subject of her lobbying effort. The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires a report of “the Houses of Congress and the Federal agencies contacted by lobbyists employed by the registrant on behalf of the client.” As pointed out by the ABA Lobbying Manual (4th ed.), at p. 136, this language might be read to require disclosure if conversations take place with any federal agency, but it has been interpreted by the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate to apply only if there has been a “lobbying contact” with the agency. This means, for example, that Roady would only have to list the IRS if she had discussions with someone who qualified as a “covered executive branch official” and those discussions did not fall within one of 19 exceptions to covered communications.

Roady clearly has a close relationship with various people at the IRS, including Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS’s exempt organization division, who called Roady before the ABA conference to request that she ask a question regarding the Inspector General’s investigation of improper targeting of conservative organizations. One would expect that Roady has communicated frequently with Lerner and other IRS officials regarding matters of importance to her own clients so one might wonder why those conversations never triggered a disclosure obligation under the LDA. Certainly Lerner is senior enough to qualify as a “covered executive branch official.” [Ok, maybe not so certainly- see comment from Dave Mason below]

One way that Roady might have been able to avoid triggering a disclosure obligation would be to communicate in ways that fell within one of the exceptions to the Lobbying Disclosure Act. For example, with respect to her lobbying on “tax treatment of donor-advised funds of charitable organizations,” Roady would have had to disclose if she had had a conversation with Lerner (or another high-ranking IRS official) on behalf of one of her clients. But suppose Roady’s involvement in this issue was not limited to her advocacy on behalf of private clients? At around the same time of her lobbying effort, she served on a working group of the “Panel on the Nonprofit Sector,” a project of Independent Sector, which describes itself as the “leadership network for nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs committed to advancing the common good in America and around the world.” This project resulted in a report which, among other things, made a series of recommendations regarding donor-advised funds (see p. 39). So if Roady discussed these issues with Lerner or others at the IRS, who is to say if she was doing so on behalf of her paying clients or Independent Sector?

Speaking of Independent Sector, another way that Roady might communicate with high-ranking IRS officials without engaging in “lobbying contacts” is to appear with them on panels or at professional conferences (like the ABA conference itself). As public events, these probably fall outside the definition of “lobbying contacts.” Roady (like many other Washington tax lawyers) frequently participates in such events. For example, if you had been at the Ritz Carlton on April 24, 2013, you could have attended a program jointly sponsored by Independent Sector and Georgetown Law School, and featuring tax and legal experts such as Roady and . . . wait for it . . . Lois Lerner.

(This event was titled, ironically, “Nonprofit Governance: Advancing Your Mission Through Lobbying.” You see, the tax law generally restricts nonprofits from engaging in lobbying, but it is a tad vague on what exactly constitutes lobbying or how much is allowed. This “leaves public charities in quandary- they are permitted to engage in some lobbying but too much may jeopardize their tax exemption, and there is no bright-line test for determining how much lobbying is too much.” If this problem sounds to you  a lot like the issue of how much political activity can be engaged in by tax exempt groups, we think alike.)

Even more ironically, Roady may have avoided “lobbying contacts” in part because of her appointment by the IRS to be a member of its Advisory Committee on Tax-Exempt and Government Entities. This appointment would not have been possible if Roady had still been a registered lobbyist because President Obama has barred lobbyists from serving on such committees. However, the LDA also exempts communications “made in the course of participation in an advisory committee” from the definition of “lobbying contacts.” Thus, having been appointed to the committee due to her cozy relationship with the IRS, Roady’s service on the committee provided her with a basis for communicating with senior IRS officials without triggering a registration obligation.

Of course, given the many vagaries of the LDA, someone who really does not want to register can often find a colorable basis for failing to do so. Lack of enforcement makes it unlikely that a non-registrant will even have to explain his or her failure to register. While these problems may militate in favor of tightening the requirements of the LDA, they also make it foolish and counterproductive to punish those who do register.

Thus, while the policy of banning lobbyists from serving on advisory committees may or may not prove to be unconstitutional (as currently being argued before the D.C. Circuit), the Roady case illustrates why it certainly will not fulfill Obama’s stated goal of changing the “culture of special interest access.” All it does is incentivize non-compliance with the LDA, and reward those who can find a way not to register.