There are a lot of titles used around the state Capitol for those who hope to influence the work of the Legislature and governor. But only one -- 'lobbyist' -- comes with a formal set of rules.
Some say that's clear evidence of a troubling loophole in state law.
"The loophole that's being exploited allows people to, essentially, fall off the lobbying radar," says Phillip Ung of Common Cause California.
And that anonymity means no one really knows whether hundreds of consultants, advocates, and activists are walking right up to the legal line of lobbying -- or crossing it.
Some call the practice 'shadow lobbying,' and say the reason for avoiding the title of professional lobbyist is simple: state law requires disclosure of clients, how much is being paid, and the pending bills that are their focus.
Not all agree there's a growing presence of shadow lobbying, though there's no real way to know. Jim Cassie, president of the industry's Institute of Governmental Advocates, doubts there's a growing trend but admits the business of the state Capitol has changed dramatically since he began walking the halls in 1977.
"I think government has gotten more complex and there are more needs for people to be represented here to protect their interests," he says.
Slow Growth In Lobbyists
Even so, the number of registered lobbyists has hardly grown in the last few years. Numbers from the secretary of state's office show there are now 1,793 registered lobbyists, virtually unchanged from 2011. The lobbying ranks spiked upwards before that, but many watchers say that's likely driven by the 2010 law that requires pension fund advisers to also register as lobbyists.
The threshold for who is, and isn't, a lobbyist hasn't changed in almost two decades. State law requires anyone earning more than $2,000 in a month -- or spending more than a third of their working time -- in efforts to influence lawmakers to register as a lobbyist.
"A bright line is drawn by the statute," says Zackery Morazzini, general counsel of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, tasked with enforcing California's lobbying rules.
But enforcement of that bright line depends on how an individual defines his or her work... or whether someone files a complaint. In fact, FPPC staffers can only identify a single instance of someone prosecuted for lobbying without registering, a case from 2008.
Some have suggested that California's threshold needs to be reworked to focus on how much contact individuals are making with lawmakers and their staff, and not counting dollars.
Critics like Common Cause's Ung also argue for including more activities under the lobbying umbrella, including those often now done by political professionals who call themselves 'consultants.'
"If you are directing strategy, or even telling lobbyists who to contact," says Ung, "that is, in a form, lobbying."
But some of those political professionals disagree -- even though their work is promoted in a way that seems to blur the line.
Lobbying Expertise... But Not Lobbying
The website of one of Sacramento's most prominent political firms, Mercury Public Affairs, lists seven of its California employees under the promotional heading, 'Lobbying.' But only one of those employees is a state registered lobbyist.
(A second Mercury registered lobbyist is not listed in the online staff directory.)
Most notable on the list of those promoted for their lobbying expertise are former state Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez and Adam Mendelsohn, a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A 2008 Los Angeles Times story says a letter Nunez sent to supporters when he joined the firm suggests that "he would be a valuable Sacramento asset for clients who deal with state government."
But that's not lobbying, says Mercury.
Neither Nunez nor Mendelsohn when contacted by News10 would comment on what their duties are in working with clients. Managing director Becky Warren said in an emailed statement that the "company website [is] meant to illustrate areas of knowledge -- not engagement."
"Fabian Nunez and Adam Mendelsohn," says her statement, "are not lobbyists."
Other States Are More Restrictive
Data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows most states don't have a fixed dollar amount that triggers registering as a lobbyist. But of those that do, most are more strict than California, whose $2,000 threshold dates back to 1994. Lobbyists in the Golden State are also prohibited from making campaign contributions and of spending more than $10 on meals or gifts to lawmakers.
Changing California's rules wouldn't be easy, given they are part of a 1974 voter-approved initiative that requires a supermajority vote of the Legislature for any modifications.
Lobbyist Cassie says he thinks anyone who would be lobbying in the shadows would be ferreted out by the Capitol's lobbying professionals, known informally as the Third House.
"I think you'd be busted," says Cassie. "There's a lot of people with eyes out there."
But it's all of those eyes that makes some uncomfortable to even discuss the existence of 'shadow lobbying.' One of the professional lobbyists contacted for this story declined to be interviewed, explaining that some of those who influence Capitol events might lean on clients, threatening the livelihood of someone who might end up criticizing the world of consultants and other non-lobbying politicos.
"These are very powerful individuals who are well connected and represent very wealthy interests," says Common Cause's Ung. "The public deserves to know who they're representing, and what they're asking legislators to vote on."