Interacting with public officials and public employees is necessary for many businesses and non-profit organizations. No one should be discouraged from engaging public officials and public employees on public policy. In fact, proper engagement with the public sector often benefits all parties involved.
However, interacting with public officials and public employees does not come without risk.
Governments at all levels have become more aggressive in the enforcement of laws that govern political activities, and compliance mistakes can be extremely damaging
The compliance requirements of lobbying, ethics, and campaign finance laws create both legal and reputational risks. Most state and federal laws provide criminal penalties for violations of their respective laws. Generally, both individuals and their employers may potentially be liable for violations.
Organizations that engage in political activities in multiple locations must also account for the varying restrictions and disclosure requirements in each applicable jurisdiction, as each state and many localities have their own rules. Even absent legal liability, individuals, and organizations can still be subject to significant reputational damage because any alleged or perceived violation has the potential to attract significant media coverage, regardless of its merit.
Fortunately, there are plenty of safe harbors for individuals and organizations that engage in political affairs. The key is properly identifying those safe harbors and making sure your organization operates within them. Considering the legal and reputational risks associated with political law compliance, any business or non-profit organization that interacts with public officials and public employees should consider developing a political law compliance program that includes:
- An initial audit of the organization’s current activities and potential exposure;
- The development of policies governing the interactions between employees and public officials/employees/government entities;
- The creation of procedures and mechanisms to monitor and assess the organization’s political activities;
- Centralized oversight of activities, expenditures, and reimbursements;
- Effective recordkeeping mechanisms; and
- A training program to educate employees.
Developing a successful political law compliance program will significantly mitigate your risk and ultimately make your political activities more compelling.