Former N.C. Rep. Chris Sgro’s vocal advocacy against House Bill 2 compromise proposals is raising questions about whether he should be considered a lobbyist – something former legislators are banned from becoming within six months of leaving office.
Sgro is the executive director of Equality North Carolina, the state’s biggest LGBT advocacy group. He’s held that position since 2013, and remained in the job last year after he was appointed to the House to finish the term of a Greensboro lawmaker who’d died in office.
Sgro resigned as Equality’s registered lobbyist shortly before he was sworn in, and the group now has other lobbyists registered at the General Assembly. Under the state’s lobbying law, Sgro can’t serve as a lobbyist until his six-month “cooling off period” required for former legislators ends this summer.
But with active negotiations on HB 2 in the past several months, Sgro has been a visitor to the Legislative Building, and he often uses Twitter to make his case directly to individual lawmakers. He says he has not held meetings with legislators since leaving office.
Sgro opposes any compromise that isn’t a full repeal of HB 2, the state law that, among other things, forbids local anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and requires people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
That’s prompted some conservatives to question whether Sgro’s activities should count as lobbying. “It does seem hard to believe that he has no part of the lobbying going on from Equality North Carolina,” said Francis De Luca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute, which has been supportive of HB 2. “It just doesn’t past the sniff test.”
Sgro disagrees and says his group is following lobbying laws. Its registered lobbyist is Ames Simmons, a transgender man who serves as the organization’s director of transgender policy.
“I have publicly advocated for LGBT advocacy and education issues,” Sgro said. “I’m not lobbying on behalf of Equality North Carolina.”
De Luca said he doesn’t think Sgro has committed a “technical violation of the law” because it’s “unenforceable.”
Leaders of advocacy groups don’t necessarily have to register as lobbyists, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, which regulates lobbyists.
“If the leader of the advocacy group is a paid employee of the group, then the question is how significant a part of their duties lobbying is,” spokeswoman Liz Proctor said. “The statute states any paid staffer that spends less than 5 percent of their time in a 30-day period lobbying any designated individual isn’t considered a lobbyist.” Violations of lobbying laws are considered low-level misdemeanors that are typically punished by fines.
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said the 5 percent threshold for lobbying can be difficult to measure, but “I always think people should err on the basis of registering because transparency is good.”
Asked how much of his workload involves direct talks with legislators, Sgro said, “I work 24-7 on a broad range of issues. Some of that is education, some of it is issue advocacy, which is not lobbying.”
In recent weeks, Sgro has had discussions on Twitter with Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady and Democratic Sen. Joel Ford, expressing his opposition to a compromise bill on HB 2.
“You’re a public official w bad voting record on #lgbt rights who thinks you can negotiate our civil rights,” Sgro tweeted to Ford, who is running for Charlotte mayor.
Ford shot back, tweeting, “This is what you need to understand: I will not be bullied or intimidated by you or your organization. You are misguided.”
State law defines lobbying as “influencing or attempting to influence legislative or executive action, or both, through direct communication or activities with a designated individual (such as an elected official) or that designated individual’s immediate family.”
Sgro said the Twitter conversations shouldn’t be considered lobbying. “As an LGBT person, I have the right to send a tweet about why a bill is bad for my community,” he said.
Former Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex, helped write the state’s lobbying regulations, and he questions Sgro’s advocacy work.
“I would think that what he does grassroots from his email machine is probably not covered (under lobbying law), but what he does directly with members is,” Stam said. “It doesn’t look good, and it definitely is not within the spirit of the law.”
Stam said the law exempts advocacy group leaders who spend less than 5 percent of their time lobbying in order to make it clear who must face the registration requirements. “There’s a difference between people who are paid to be down there (at the General Assembly) and people who just have to come down there as an incidental part of their work,” he said.
De Luca said the law needs to be reconsidered because it’s difficult to prove how much time an advocacy group leader spends lobbying.
“If they’re not going to enforce the law, then they ought to get rid of it,” he said.
De Luca added that when he oversaw lobbying rules as a member of the State Ethics Commission, most investigations were “not that people were lobbying (illegally), it’s that they messed up reports.”
Two legislators who left office last year, former House Majority Leader Mike Hager and former Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, have opened lobbying firms but waited six months after resigning to register and begin representing clients.
Some legislators want to extend the cooling off period to a full year. A bipartisan group of about 40 House legislators, led by Republican Rep. Scott Stone of Charlotte, is co-sponsoring a bill this year that would make the change.