Former Obama adviser fined $90,000 for illegally lobbying Rahm Emanuel

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David Plouffe

By Better Government Association

David Plouffe, the onetime campaign manager and adviser for former President Barack Obama, has been fined $90,000 by Chicago ethics officials for illegally lobbying Mayor Rahm Emanuel on behalf of ride-sharing giant Uber.

The Chicago Board of Ethics voted 5-0 to uphold an earlier preliminary decision to fine Plouffe as well as Uber, which was ordered to pay $2,000. Plouffe has worked for Uber in various capacities since after leaving the Obama White House in 2013.

The fines stem from emails made public in December as part of a legal settlement between the mayor’s office and the Better Government Association. In one of those communications, Plouffe wrote directly to Emanuel on Uber’s behalf even though Plouffe was not a registered lobbyist at the time.

“The evidence before the board is clear: Mr. Plouffe lobbied city officials via email on November 20, 2015, explicitly on behalf of the company, never reported that lobbying activity, and did not register as a lobbyist with the board of ethics with that company as his client until April 13, 2016,” Board Chairman William Conlon wrote in issuing the board’s final determination.

In the Nov. 20 email, Plouffe pressed Emanuel to rapidly fix problems Uber said it was experiencing in implementing a new agreement to allow its drivers to take passengers to and from city airports and McCormick Place.

In January, following questions first raised by the BGA, Uber spokeswoman Molly Spaeth acknowledged Plouffe appeared to have violated city lobbying rules.

That triggered an investigation by the ethics board, which then issued a preliminary finding of impropriety for Plouffe and Uber, though neither was identified by name at the time by the panel.

The board said it issued its final determination in the case after receiving a written response to the allegations from Uber, which said it was acting on behalf of Plouffe.

“In that response, both parties admit and do not dispute the allegations in the board’s notice of probable cause,” Conlon wrote. “Instead, they argue that the fine to which the unregistered lobbying should be subject should be at most $1,000.”

The board determined Plouffe should be fined $90,000 because those who lobby but aren’t registered are subject to a fine of $1,000 a day—with 95 days elapsing between the time the mayor received the email from Plouffe and the time he finally registered as a lobbyist with the city.

According to Conlon’s ruling, Plouffe and Uber argued that adding a $1,000-a-day tab “leads to an absurd result” because Plouffe wasn’t lobbying in between those dates.

But the board rejected that argument, saying that under that interpretation individuals would be free to illegally lobby public officials safe in the knowledge that the heftiest fine they could face was $1,000.

“While it is true, as this lobbyist and company assert in their response, that this could lead to ‘massive fines for a single instance of unregistered lobbying’ that is precisely what the ordinance says, and how it promotes transparency,” Conlon wrote.

Spaeth said Uber and Plouffe would not contest the ruling. “We work hard to ensure our registrations are accurate and up to date. We regret that in this instance we made a mistake and we will comply with the board’s assessment,” she said in an emailed statement.

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