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COVID-19 Government "Re-Open" Advisory Groups Often Subject to Lobbying and Ethics Rules

May 6, 2020

Many states and localities have formed so-called “Re-Open” task forces or advisory bodies to make recommendations to government officials regarding reopening the economy while mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Although these groups tend to be composed of community and business leaders who are volunteering their expertise to the government, many jurisdictions’ laws nevertheless classify their members as public officials for government ethics and lobbying rules purposes. This means that contacts with such bodies and their members could trigger a lobbying registration and/or disclosure requirement, and serving on such a body could subject the participant to governmental ethics rules, including financial disclosure requirements and conflict of interest restrictions.

For example, Washington, D.C.’s comprehensive and restrictive ethics rules extend to any “member of a District government board or commission, whether or not for compensation.” The District’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability has interpreted this language to include members of the ReOpen DC Advisory Group. Florida’s statutory definition of “public officer” similarly does not require the receipt of compensation from the State, and specifically includes “any person serving on an advisory body,” including members of the Florida Re-Open Task Force and its various working groups. California’s ethics rules generally do not apply to bodies that are purely advisory in nature, but each local jurisdiction is charged with determining whether an advisory body actually or even effectively has decision-making authority. Local jurisdictions could reach differing conclusions on that question.

The bottom line: Before communicating with such a body or accepting an invitation to join one, your organization should understand the ethics and lobbying implications.

Please contact Caplin & Drysdale's Political Law Group if you have any questions.

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