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25th May 2019

Lobbyists complain that lobby-watchdogs acted unfairly

  • Lobbyists try to influence lawmakers on behalf of governments as well as corporations (Photo: European Parliament)

In a remarkable feat of lobbying 'jujitsu,' the trade association representing Brussels public relations firms has lodged a complaint with the European Commission that the NGO responsible for exposing their skullduggery is itself breaking guidelines.

The European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (Epaca), the trade body for firms that lobby the EU institutions, on 18 March filed a complaint with the EU executive that accuses the Dutch-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) of being in breach of three different rules in the EU's "Code of Conduct for Interest Representatives."

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The complaint, seen by EUobserver, alleges that the NGO, itself a form of lobbying group, albeit one that lobbies against lobbyists, engaged in "unethical behaviour and deliberate input of incomplete data in the [European Commission's lobbyist] register."

Epaca says that an employee of CEO misrepresented himself in correspondence with the chief executive of one of their members, lobbying consultancy Burson Marsteller, pretending to be a journalist when he was actually doing detective work on behalf of his bosses.

In doing so, the NGO broke rules one, three and five of the code, which state that lobbyists must: "Identify themselves by name and by the entity they work for or represent ...declare the interests, and where applicable the clients or the members, which they represent ...[and] not obtain or try to obtain information, or any decision, dishonestly."

"The least you could expect from a supposed transparency organisation is that they be transparent themselves," Epaca chairman Jose Laloum told EUobserver.

CEO for its part says that the individual concerned is indeed a freelance journalist who was working part-time on a project investigating lobbying on behalf of governments accused of unsavoury activities.

The matter concerns efforts by CEO, which normally focuses on lobbying on behalf of multinational corporations, to investigate a realm of spin that the organisation had until recently done little research into: lobbying on behalf of governments, in particular administrations with poor public images due to allegations of corruption, human rights abuses, financial malfeasance or connections to organised crime.

In particular, the group was attempting to investigate which firms in Brussels were lobbying on behalf of Sri Lanka, Bulgaria, Botswana and the UK Channel Islands.

According to CEO, one David Leloup has also been investigating the hiring of Bell Pottinger by Sri Lanka to lobby the EU, efforts by White & Case on behalf of tax havens Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, and the firm that CEO believes to be representing Botswana.

The subject is something of a black hole in terms of lobbying, as consultancies say that they are not engaged in lobbying, but in "country branding."

Earlier this month, Mr Leloup emailed lobbying consultancy Burson-Marsteller chief Robert Mack asking him whether the firm was still representing the government of Bulgaria and whether an Austrian firm, Dr Hoheger Communicazionsberatung, reported in the Austrian press in 2008 to be a subsidiary of BM and to be lobbying on behalf of Sofia, was also still doing so.

However, the complainants suggest that Mr Leloup misrepresented himself as "a journalist" and not as an employee of CEO.

"NGOs regularly perform investigative journalistic work to find out what companies are up to," CEO campaigner Olivier Hoedeman told EUobserver.

"In any case, this is a question of journalistic ethics, not breach of lobbying rules. There was no lobbying performed here. While journalists normally identify themselves, it is also accepted that reporters sometimes work undercover."

In recent days, in perhaps the biggest lobbying scandal to hit any European government in history, three senior British government ministers, former contender for EU high representative Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers, have been suspended pending investigation of allegations that they offered to take thousands in return for political influence from fictional lobbyists who were in reality journalists for Channel Four.

According to the UK's Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct: "Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means."

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