Ferreting Out Lobbyists

— Ex-Democratic state senator Dede Alpert, once mentioned as a possible San Diego mayoral candidate, is making waves in the state's capital by promoting the interests of the cable TV industry without bothering to register as a lobbyist. Though not a lawyer, Alpert works for the Sacramento law firm of Nielsen, Merksamer as "special advisor for public policy and strategic planning." Firm principal Vigo "Chip" Nielsen bills himself as a "political law advisor" and has worked for many locals, including ex-San Diego mayor Maureen O'Connor. Partner Steven Merksamer, former chief of staff to Republican governor George Deukmejian, is a major player in GOP politics.

Among the firm's clients have been Californians for Ferret Legalization. When she was a senator, Alpert carried a bill, later vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to lift the state's ban on the controversial little animals. Alpert spoke out in favor of ex-San Diego School superintendent Alan Bersin during recent senate confirmation hearings on his appointment to the state board of education. Her latest assignment, for cable giant Comcast, first reported by Capitol Weekly, involves the battle phone companies are waging to offer services, including video, that are now the sole province of cable.

State law defines a lobbyist as someone making $2000 or more "in a calendar month... or whose principal duties as an employee are to communicate directly or through his or her agents with any elective state official, agency official, or legislative official for the purpose of influencing legislative or administrative action." A loophole allows unregistered agents to discuss bills with legislators for two hours a month, Alpert says. They can also offer their clients advice on lobbying strategy. Besides avoiding the financial-reporting requirements for lobbyists, former legislators such as Alpert can avail themselves of "floor privileges," the ability to walk around on the senate floor and buttonhole their former colleagues before votes. Alpert says she has never done that. She declined to disclose how much she is paid.

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