Update, Dec. 27, 2017: The Secretary of State now notes that Kennedy is barred from registering as a lobbyist. This story has been updated to reflect this development.
A Colorado lobbyist is facing steep fines for failing to register — and is now barred from registering at all. The Secretary of State’s Office notified Collon Kennedy on Thursday that he owes nearly $74,000 in late fees.
The matter came to the attention of the office after state Sen. Irene Aguilar filed a complaint against Kennedy. The Denver Democrat observed Kennedy lobbying for Walmart on a liquor sales bill she opposed. When she looked him up in the Secretary of State’s lobbyist database, she couldn’t find him listed.
“I know that he’s been there lobbying a long time, and I had not realized that he wasn’t registered,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar filed her complaint on March 13, but documents indicate (PDF) the Secretary of State’s Office didn’t locate Kennedy to notify him of the complaint until May 10.
Kennedy told KUNC he changed the name of his lobbying firm from Colorado Communique to AOK Strategies in the past year. And his name wasn’t listed as the contact for AOK.
State law requires all lobbyists to register as individuals, even if they work for firms that specialize in lobbying. Individuals who are sole employees of a firm only have to register once, but must include both their business name and their individual name.
Kennedy said he was the sole employee of AOK, but documents filed with the state indicated the firm employed two or more people. Kennedy said he misunderstood the registration requirements (PDF).
“I explained why I had interpreted the law the way I did,” Kennedy said. “They told me that I was wrong and incorrect. They said that I needed to be registered as an individual and for my company, which currently I am.”
Kennedy signed an agreement to register and pay any fines on Oct. 23, a month after receiving the stipulation (PDF) from the Secretary of State. But he didn’t officially register as a lobbyist until Dec. 6, the day after KUNC contacted him to ask about Aguilar’s complaint. And he didn’t file his 2017 reports until Dec. 20. On Dec. 21, an invoice went out (PDF) with the fines for the late filings of the reports. As of Dec. 27, Kennedy was barred from registering as a lobbyist at all.
“This is not a slap on the wrist,” said Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert. “This is a substantial fine.”
The fines will apparently significantly diminish lobbying earnings for Kennedy in 2017. AOK Strategies reported earning $109,000 from clients, with $20,000 of that paid to a subcontractor.
Enforcement actions like this against lobbyists are relatively rare. Aguilar’s is one of only two complaints resolved this year, according to decisions posted on the Secretary of State’s website. The last one was two years ago.
“We don’t have staff to audit and investigate except upon complaint,” Staiert said. “The concentration of the program is on compliance and education and transparency.”
Staiert said laws regulating lobbyists don’t require the Secretary of State to audit lobbyists or go beyond enforcing late filing fees.
Luis Toro, executive director of the soon-to-be defunct watchdog nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch, disputes that.
“I was looking at the statute governing lobbying and it specifically says that the Secretary of State could do enforcement actions on his or her own motion so they don’t need to wait for a complaint,” he said.
“They only respond to complaints and complaints are few and far between,” he added.
Aguilar remains concerned about enforcement of lobbying laws. Kennedy hasn’t been registered as an individual lobbyist since 2002, even though he’s been lobbying the entire time. Aguilar said since the settlement of her complaint only dealt with 2017, she’s filed another complaint.
“Like with any rule, if you don’t enforce it then why even have it?” Aguilar asked. “I feel like there probably should be some mechanism for spot checking things.”
Kennedy said his fellow lobbyists should learn from his mistakes: “If there’s anything good that could come out of this complaint, it’s so my colleagues don’t have to go through this process."