Hobbs alleges Goldwater illegally lobbies at Legislature

Dillon Rosenblatt//July 7, 2020

Hobbs alleges Goldwater illegally lobbies at Legislature

Dillon Rosenblatt//July 7, 2020


Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs alleges The Goldwater Institute is illegally lobbying and wants Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate his former employer. 

Hobbs’ Office says several Goldwater employees are acting as lobbyists without registering as such, a claim Goldwater had previously denied. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative-libertarian think tank, has long claimed it doesn’t need to register its employees as lobbyists who regularly testify at the state Legislature.

Lobbyists also cannot register themselves.  

The think tank currently has one registered lobbyist in Jenna Bentley, and argues that Jon Riches, the director of national litigation and general counsel, and Christina Sandefur, the executive vice president, aren’t acting as lobbyists when they regularly advocate for or against legislation at the Capitol on Goldwater Institute’s behalf. 

This fight began to brew in 2010. After years of the organization contending it only provides “technical information,” and therefore doesn’t need to register any lobbyists, the Goldwater Institute registered one lobbyist . Before registering its single lobbyist, Goldwater would often sign in as “neutral” on legislation, though its employees’ testimony rarely left any question as to where the organization stood on a given issue. 

The issue came up again in 2013, when then-Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake said the lobbying loopholes are so big that “you could drive a truck through them.”

In February, HighGround Public Affairs’ Chuck Coughlin resparked the debate after the two organizations found themselves at loggerheads over the Phoenix rideshare fee. Coughlin penned a blog post saying Goldwater “looks like an elephant but acts like a snake.” Hobbs’ Office began to look into the complaint then. 

In one instance, Bentley tweeted a picture of Riches testifying this year with the caption indicating he was testifying on behalf of Goldwater, HighGround general counsel Jeff Kros wrote to Hobbs in February. 

Coughlin filed the complaint to Hobbs, a Democrat, hoping her administration would take the issue more seriously than past administrations. The two previous secretaries were Michele Reagan and Ken Bennett, both Republicans. 

Goldwater Institute replied, arguing its other employees don’t meet the statutory definition of “lobbyists for compensation” or “authorized lobbyists,” that their testimony meets is technical in nature and therefore exempt and that requiring registration would infringe upon its freedom of expression. 

In a July 7 letter to Brnovich, Elections Director Bo Dul wasn’t buying that explanation, saying there’s reasonable cause to believe Goldwater Institute must register additional employees as lobbyists. She asked Brnovich, who previously worked at Goldwater years before becoming attorney general in 2015, to investigate the organization for breaking lobbyist registration laws. The Attorney General’s Office could not immediately be reached for comment. 

This year, Riches and Sandefur both testified for SB 1554 — a short-term rental bill sponsored by Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix — and while they signed in as representing themselves, they were clearly doing Goldwater Institute’s business, Dul said.

She said that during their testimony, the duo repeatedly mentioned their Goldwater Institute titles and used terms like “we” believe or “our” position. Yet the think tank maintained the duo aren’t employed to lobby, and therefore aren’t lobbyists, which Dul called a “circular definition” of lobbyist.

“This interpretation would produce the absurd result that no principal is ever legally obligated to list a lobbyist for compensation or authorized lobbyist under [state law] unless the principal has already chosen to list that person as a lobbyist in its registration,” Dul wrote. 

“We bring this to your attention because it seems the Goldwater Institute feels they are above the laws that all other lobbyists and lobbying entities are subject. This is unfair and brings disrepute into the legislative process,” Kros wrote.

In an email to the Yellow Sheet Report, Goldwater Institute said it disagrees with Hobbs’ decision, and that while it sometimes engages in policy debates, its employees spend the bulk of their time litigating. 

“We have one employee who lobbies for Goldwater, and she is registered. On rare occasions, other staffers come to the Capitol at her request to provide expert testimony, but they are not lobbyists. And, of course, none of these employees are making lobbying expenditures, which is the primary purpose of the lobbying registration statutes,” the organization said.

Besides Bentley, Riches and Sandefur, Goldwater employees who signed in to support or oppose legislation this year include Director of Education Policy Matt Beienburg, Senior Fellow Jim Manley, Senior Attorney Matt Miller, Senior Fellow Jim Rounds and Visiting Fellow Jeff Singer. 

Yellow Sheet Report editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this story.