Former Uber executive runs afoul of Chicago's lobbying rules, city hands down $90K fine

By John Myers | Apr 10, 2017

CHICAGO - The Chicago Board of Ethics recently handed down a $90,000 fine to former Uber executive and former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe for improper lobbying.

David Plouffe, former senior vice president of policy and strategy at Uber and 2008 campaign manager for former President Barack Obama, was fined for allegedly failing to register as a lobbyist in the city of Chicago. 

The violation had come to light after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel released more than 3,000 emails in 2016 as part of a settlement he had reached with the Better Government Association. 

The emails contained a conversation between Plouffe and Emanuel in which Plouffe asked the mayor to loosen regulations on the city's rules for picking up patrons at the city's airports, including fees paid for the service and a requirement that included a special placard for vehicles doing pickups at the airports.

According the city's lobbying ordinance, a lobbyist is considered to be any individual who works to influence anyone in a legislative or administrative capacity on behalf of another party. 

Any form of written or verbal communications, including formal or informal in-person meetings, phone conversations and email communications can be considered lobbying. Lobbyists are required to register by Jan. 20 of each year or within five days of any lobbying activity. If lobbyists do not comply with the ordinance, they face a $1,000 fine for each offense and for each day that the offense continues. 

The board of ethics determined that Plouffe's offense had continued for 90 days.

Mariah DiGrino, a lawyer at DLA Piper who specializes in real estate and property law, describes Chicago's lobbying ordinance as one of the broadest in the U.S. 

"Some jurisdictions specifically identify the 'targets' of lobbying efforts, such as elected officials, certain department heads and executive officers and their staff and/or appointed board and commission members," she told the Cook County Record. "Others specify the types of city actions and decisions that trigger the requirements. Others limit coverage to individuals who are compensated for lobbyist services, or to individuals who expend money on meals, beverages, special events or gifts for public officials."

DiGrino said this creates a challenge for individuals operating in the environment created by the ordinance because it is difficult to determine whether an individual is considered a lobbyist under the city's rules. 

"For example, professional consultants with technical disciplines may be lobbying in some instances but not in others," she said. "An action may start out ministerial but end up requiring a non-ministerial decision. And it’s not always clear when the line has been crossed. Outreach done as a favor with no expectation of compensation may be covered. A single instance of outreach, even if nothing comes of it, may trigger the requirements."

DiGrino said that even though the requirements could be clearer, they play an important role in finding a balance between transparency and accountability. 

"However, in my experience, the board of ethics staff has been very accessible and helpful," DiGrino said.

She said the best way for individuals to avoid running afoul of these rules is to to seek the advice and counsel of an attorney familiar with lobbyist registration requirements. 

"Aside from helping individuals navigate the requirements, an attorney could also help individuals seek confidential advisory opinions from the board of ethics and determine a compliance strategy," DiGrino said.

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City of Chicago City of Chicago Board of Ethics DLA Piper

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