By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Newt Gingrich's life since he left public office in 1999 reveals something Washington insiders have known for years: It is not always clear who is lobbying the U.S. government.
Lawmakers have attempted to draw clearer lines since 1995, but the rules they devised still allow some of the biggest names in Washington's influence industry to escape disclosure, experts on the law said.
To be required to register as a lobbyist, a person must meet three tests: bring in a minimum amount of money; make two contacts with senior government officials; and spend at least 20 percent of your time on lobbying activities.
Some who lobby make sure they fail at least one of those tests, letting them avoid what has become a scorned label.
"This town is filled with people who cross the registration threshold and never register," said Robert Kelner, a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling who helps lobbyists comply with the regulations.
The U.S. Justice Department has never brought a case against someone for failing to register as a lobbyist. It has brought four against lobbyists or their firms for not filing other paperwork, resulting in fines totaling $92,000.
Gingrich has repeatedly denied lobbying, a charge that he is battling as he campaigns for the Republican nomination for president. During the past two decades, he has made millions of dollars from healthcare companies and others by serving as a bridge to former colleagues in the U.S. Congress. He was speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999.
As he maneuvered among clients and officials in his post-congressional career, Gingrich "followed specific protocols and procedures" to stay within the law, his lawyer Randy Evans told The New York Times.
Many other former elected officials have followed a similar path, including Democrat Tom Daschle, once the U.S. Senate's majority leader and now a senior policy adviser to law and lobbying firm DLA Piper.
Kelner said more details are needed before it is clear whether Gingrich acted correctly. But, he said, many prominent individuals "present themselves as strategic advisers who are probably coming close to the line of registration or crossing it, most often because they misunderstand where the line is or they are inattentive to it."
The goal of the registration regime is to give the public a greater understanding of the forces at work in Washington. U.S. states have similar systems in their own capitals.
After reports this month that the Gingrich Group accepted as much as $1.8 million in fees from Freddie Mac, Gingrich said he gave "strategic advice" to the mortgage giant. Earlier, he cited his background as a historian.
A second for-profit group that Gingrich ran, the Center for Health Transformation, arranged meetings for companies to present their work to federal officials, the Times reported in Wednesday's editions.
Under federal law, those kinds of meetings are important because lobbying activity is defined as "contacts" with a government official and any advice or work connected with those contacts. But there are many exceptions, such as "a request for a meeting," that do not trigger the law.
"The most difficult question we get is, 'Is what we're doing a lobbying contact?'" said Caleb Burns, a partner at the law firm Wiley Rein who advises lobbyists on complying with the registration law.
"A former government official who simply asks for a meeting with one of his or her former colleagues would not be making a lobbying contact," Burns said. "That would change, however, if he or she then participated in the meeting."
Watchdog groups suspect there are many people lobbying who should register but do not because of the stigma surrounding the profession or the administrative burden.
The number of registered federal government lobbyists dropped to 12,941 during 2010, down 12.9 percent from 2007, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
"The solution is to redefine the threshold so that we capture all of the people who are involved in lobbying," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the consumer group Public Citizen.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)