Company first to be convicted under lobbying law

Dublin firm fined €1,250 for late filing of lobbying returns to public office watchdog

Sherry Perreault, head of ethics and lobbying regulations at the Standards in Public Office Commission,  called on the Government to introduce changes giving the regulator additional powers to impose fines to tackle post-employment breaches.

Sherry Perreault, head of ethics and lobbying regulations at the Standards in Public Office Commission, called on the Government to introduce changes giving the regulator additional powers to impose fines to tackle post-employment breaches.

 

The State’s public office watchdog has secured its first conviction under the country’s four-year-old lobbying law over the late filing of returns on representations of elected officials.

Dublin company Bissett Industrial Limited was fined €1,250 by Judge Anthony Halpin at the District Court on Wednesday for not making submissions to the Standards in Public Office Commission on time.

The Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 compels people lobbying elected and public officials to disclose who they are lobbying and the issues they are raising in regular returns to the watchdog.

Individuals can be fined up to €2,500 in the District Court.

Bissett Industrial was registered to lobby in January 2017 and records show the company made representations to six Dublin city councillors in the first four months of that year to have land at a site in Ringsend, Dublin 4 retained in the Poolbeg West strategic development zone (SDZ).

The firm was not represented in court and did not engage with the regulator after €200 fixed penalty notices were issued for the failure to make returns for 2018 by the regular filing deadlines.

Larry Joyce, who listed on records as the “responsible person” for the company’s lobbying, admitted that he had failed to file the returns on time but put it down to a personal issue and a busy office.

“I am dyslexic. We are very busy in the office, overstretched, and for many reasons the returns weren’t done,” he told The Irish Times.

The SIPO commission disclosed the first conviction during the launch of the watchdog’s Regulation of Lobbying in 2018 annual report.

Last year the commission issued 522 fines, or fixed payment notices, of €200 each, of which 437 were paid, yielding €87,400 to the State. Fifteen remain unpaid, and 70 were cancelled for valid reasons.

Eight files were prepared for prosecution relating to non-returns, of which five were discontinued or settled. Proceedings were issued in two cases, including the Bissett case.

In 2018, the regulator discovered the first known breach of rules covering the one-year “cooling-off” period when former ministers, ministers of state, ministerial advisers and senior civil servants must abstain from lobbying their former employer or former colleagues or be employed by someone who does.

Breaches of “post-employment” rules for former elected and public officials are not offences under the act and the commission has no powers to impose sanctions or to prosecute them.

Sherry Perreault, head of ethics and lobbying regulations at the watchdog, called on the Government to grant the regulator additional enforcement powers to tackle post-employment breaches.

“The problem is that when there is a breach, we have almost nothing that we can do about it and we are precluded from commenting publicly in any kind of detail,” she said.

“That is frustrating but more than being frustrating it is allowing a loophole where there is no consequence for a person who actually breaches the obligations.”

Former elected and public officials should have to disclose a job offer to the commission or at least be forced to seek advice from the commission before engaging in lobbying to know if they are in compliance, said Ms Perreault.

“What worries me is that people are not seeking advice before taking positions,” she said.

She raised concern about the “single digit” number of lobbying registrants in Leitrim, Carlow, Longford, Roscommon, Laois and Offaly where council lofficials and elected councillors fall under the act.

“We are kind of surprised us is that in the space of four years we are only seeing a handful of registrants in some of those countries,” she said.

There are more than 1,800 registrants permitted to lobby elected and public officials and almost 10,000 returns on lobbying activities were submitted for last year.

Health continued to be the policy area most lobbied about, followed by economic development and industry, agriculture, education and training, and justice and equality.