It’s not often that elected officials come forward and publicly admit when they are wrong, so give La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt kudos for acknowledging in a recent column (Herald, Oct. 14) that she should be more transparent in her dual role as both a county commissioner and the head of an environmental advocacy group.
Lachelt grudgingly credited Western Wire reporting – albeit two months after questions were asked – for her promise to be more transparent. In reality, however, Lachelt’s column raises significant questions that could have major implications on lobbying and disclosure rules moving forward.
Investigative reporting uncovered a Colorado county commissioner setting up a privately funded, third-party organization to coincide with her activities as an elected official. Far from two separate, distinct roles, the two positions are designed to complement each other – indeed Lachelt herself says the roles have similar interests. Doing so, however, appears to blur the lines between advocate/lobbyist and elected official.
Our reporting has been critical to unmasking this operation. For example, Western Wire uncovered that Lachelt not only launched the new 501(c) 3 organization called Western Leaders Network, but that she is the executive director. Lachelt avoids this fact both on her website and in her column. Our reporting showed that Lachelt traveled to Washington, D.C., on the WLN’s dime to lobby against repealing the Bureau of Land Management’s rule regulating venting and flaring of methane emissions for oil and natural gas operations on public lands.
But when speaking with members of Congress and reporters, she identified herself simply as a county commissioner, not as a paid advocate/lobbyist. Make no mistake, though, WLN knows exactly the game they are playing, as Don Schreiber with WLN explained in the June 22 Durango Telegraph.
All of this information was uncovered thanks to hard-nosed, investigative journalism; our reporters spoke with concerned local residents in Durango and Congressional offices. They submitted Colorado Open Records Act requests. Most importantly, our team asked hard questions of Lachelt. Her lengthy response, which included several key facts that had yet to be made public, came only after issues of transparency and public disclosure became a consistent theme in La Plata County, and, specifically, with her own advocacy work.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Lachelt felt compelled to defend her dual role and lack of transparency in the column. But her reasoning and justification only raise more questions that deserve answers. For example, who actually funds WLN? Lachelt would not provide this information to Western Wire when asked. Yet this information is important for several reasons.
WLN donors appear to be able to fund an advocacy organization and avoid lobbying and disclosure rules required of many other groups. Lachelt was in Washington representing herself as an elected official and did not disclose her affiliation as the head of WLN. Does this skirt ethics and lobbying rules? Or is this the latest lobbying loophole? The implications could be enormous.
In the old days, elected officials had to depart elected office for cushy lobbying positions with outside groups. Then it was called the revolving door. With this new setup, however, the elected official doesn’t have to surrender public office nor even need to leave the building. They can get paid to lobby for another group right from the taxpayer-funded desk.
The disclosure of funders is also important because she states in her column that “As long as expenses are covered by a nonprofit that does not receive more than 5 percent of its income from for-profit entities, state policy allows nonprofits to cover elected officials’ travel expenses.” But how do taxpayers know this if funds aren’t publicly disclosed?
What we do know is that after returning home from Washington with a victory in hand on the venting and flaring rule, Lachelt held a champagne and high-tea party for donors and supporters at a local wine bar. We know that she plans on continuing to use this model moving forward. And why not? Lachelt and her WLN donors may have found another way to skirt lobbying rules and regulations.
Surely it’s only a matter of time before more elected officials launch their very own version of the Lachelt lobbying loophole.
Matt Dempsey is the opinion editor of Western Wire, a project of the Western Energy Alliance, a nonprofit regional oil and natural gas association based in Denver. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org