Ron Calzone has been walking the hallways of the Missouri statehouse for years, meeting with lawmakers and their staffs, testifying before legislative committees and advocating for the conservative causes he holds dear.
But he swears he’s not a lobbyist.
True, he’s founder, director and sole officer of a nonprofit called Missouri First, a group that includes legislative lobbying to influence public policy in its charter.
Calzone never withholds his affiliation with the group when speaking with elected officials. But he is unpaid, never claims to be speaking on behalf of the organization and never gives legislators gifts of any kind.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Thus, he doesn’t believe he should have to register with the state ethics commission or submit reports detailing all of the ways in which he has attempted to influence legislation.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit disagrees.
In a 2-1 ruling on Wednesday, the court found that Calzone’s activity qualifies as lobbying, and the government’s interest in transparency means even an unpaid lobbyist must register and file lobbying reports.
Calzone’s attorneys say the decision is a significant strike against the constitutional right to petition the government and have vowed to appeal. They argue that the court’s interpretation of Missouri lobbying law could end up being expansive enough to require everyday citizens to register as lobbyists or face the possibility of a complaint that could lead to criminal penalties.
“The problem is that every year dozens of groups go down to the Capitol for lobby days, and they have people designated to speak on behalf of these groups,” said David Roland, one of Calzone’s attorneys and director of Litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.
“And there is no principle distinction between that and what Mr. Calzone does. None,” Roland said. “They are volunteers, but according to this ruling, those people should have to register and report as lobbyists.”
Calzone’s legal drama began on Election Day in 2014, when a complaint was filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission alleging that since 2000, when he founded Missouri First, Calzone had violated state law by lobbing members of the Missouri General Assembly on behalf of Missouri First without registering and paying registration filing fees.
In September 2015, the commission found probable cause that Calzone had violated two state laws and ordered him to register as a lobbyist, file all required reports, cease and desist from attempting to influence legislation until after filing an annual lobbyist registration and other required reports, and pay a $1,000 fine.
Calzone sued to overturn that decision, with the case eventually landing in the court of appeals.
In upholding the commission’s decision Tuesday, the court said the state has “an interest in transparency, which includes avoiding the fact or even the appearance of public corruption and knowing who is attempting to influence legislators and public policy.”
“Though the lobbyists may not be receiving money, unpaid lobbyists could still offer things of value to legislators, creating a sufficiently important governmental interest in avoiding the fact or appearance of public corruption,” the court ruled. “Furthermore, the government and the public have a sufficiently important interest in knowing who is pressuring and attempting to influence legislators, and the ability to pressure and influence legislators is not limited solely to paid lobbyists.”
Dissenting from the majority opinion, Judge David Stras wrote that the ruling appears to apply to all sorts of citizens who might attempt to influence lawmakers. That would seem to include citizen “lobby days” at the Missouri Capitol, when Missourians travel to Jefferson City on designated days to lobby lawmakers specifically on behalf of groups such as labor unions, professional organizations and advocacy groups.
“The law seemingly sweeps up all unpaid political advocacy by anyone who acts on behalf of someone else, no matter how often it occurs and regardless of purpose,” Stras wrote.
The ruling “endangers the free exchange of ideas,” Sras wrote, and could lead to ethics complaints being weaponized against political adversaries.
“Indeed, a political adversary, an unscrupulous government official or even a legislator tired of being held accountable could simply submit a complaint to the (Ethics) Commission accusing a politically active citizen of lobbying... without first registering as a lobbyist,” Sraus wrote. “It may just be simpler for a citizen to skip a lobbying day or pass up the opportunity to call a legislator rather than having to complete tedious paperwork or risk sizable fines and criminal penalties.”