Ethics Board fines Obama campaign manager $90K for Uber lobbying

Former Uber executive David Plouffe was hit with a record $90,000 fine for emailing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel without registering as a lobbyist. | Sun-Times file photo

The man who managed former President Barack Obama’s campaign has been slapped with a $90,000 fine for using Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s private email account to lobby the mayor on behalf of ride-sharing giant Uber without registering as a lobbyist.

The fine assessed against David Plouffe is the largest ever by the Chicago Board of Ethics, chairman William Conlon said.

It represents $1,000 for every one of the 90 days that Plouffe failed to registered as a lobbyist after his November 2015 email to Emanuel on the mayor’s personal account.

“Registration of lobbyists is important. It’s a disciplined process that requires someone to identify themselves as a lobbyist, name the clients they’re working for and those organizations they anticipate lobbying. It gives these people access to the decision makers who can affect legislative or administrative processes that other people don’t have,” Conlon said Thursday.

“The Board of Ethics is committed to enforcing lobbying regulations. Where there are violations, we will take action. It’s open government. It’s sunshine. It’s the ability to understand what contacts people looking for legislative or administrative action have to government officials who may be involved in those activities.”

Plouffe no longer works for Uber, whose investors include the mayor’s brother, Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel.

But Plouffe did — as vice president of policy and strategy for Uber — in November 2015 when he used one of the mayor’s personal email accounts to lobby Emanuel on behalf of the ride-sharing giant.

At the time, the mayor had authorized Uber and Lyft to make pickups at O’Hare and Midway Airports and at McCormick Place that was once the exclusive purview of the struggling taxicab industry.

Plouffe was concerned about a fee tacked on by McPier and about the city requirement that Uber vehicles that make airport pickups include signs designating those vehicles as such.

“Assume both of us thought the airport issue was settled and we would never have to discuss again, but unfortunately two significant new hurdles were introduced,” he wrote to the mayor, who worked together with Plouffe in the Obama White House during Emanuel’s days as chief of staff.

“Coming to you because of their severity that would prevent us from operating. We were all set to announce Monday we were beginning pickups.”

He added, “Sure this comes as much of a surprise to you as us, since there was an agreement in place.”

Emanuel replied, “Impossible for me to address from China.” He referred Plouffe to a pair of top aides.

When Emanuel released his private emails to settle a lawsuit filed by the Better Government Association, a revamped Board of Ethics once known as a paper tiger went to work.

It cross-checked the names of those using the mayor’s private accounts to lobby for administrative or legislative action to see if they were registered as lobbyists. Plouffe was not. He’s apparently not the only one.

“It is the only fine we have publicly announced,” Conlon said, hinting strongly there will be other fines.

Uber spokesperson Molly Spaeth responded to the fine by saying that company officials “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.”

In its ruling, the Board of Ethics noted that it received a written response from Uber Tuesday “on its own behalf and on behalf of the individual,” meaning Plouffe.

“Both parties admit and do not dispute the allegations in the board’s notice of probable cause or contest the fine to which the company is subject. Instead they argue that the fine to which the unregistered lobbyists should be subject should be at most $1,000,” the “final determination” states.

“The evidence before the board is clear: Mr. Plouffe lobbied city officials via email on Nov. 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, leaving 95 business days between the date of lobbying and the date of registration.”

Every lobbyist is given a five-day grace period.

In its response, Plouffe and Uber argue that the fine “leads to an absurd result by having the Board punish those, like him, to the same degree it would punish a person who actually had engaged in lobbying every day” during the period in question.

The Ethics Board rejected that argument.

“Under that interpretation, a person could engage in unregistered lobbying activity as many times as he or she wishes and simply avoid registration with the knowledge that, once he or she is discovered or ‘caught,’ if ever, there would be no fine. Or at most a $1,000 fine. There would be no deterrent effect as to unregistered lobbying at all,” the ruling states.

“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 ordinances says and how it promotes transparency.”

Emanuel responded to the ruling by saying of Plouffe, “He got fined and, my guess is, the Ethics Board did exactly what it was supposed to do.”

It’s not the first time that the Board of Ethics has taken a strong stand under Conlon’s leadership.

Last fall, the board’s strong stand against a longstanding perk prompted the Cubs to yank an offer they have made to aldermen for more than a decade — to purchase playoff and World Series tickets at face value that cost thousands of dollars to buy on the secondary market.

Plouffe currently serves as president of CZI Policy and Advocacy. He remains an Uber board member and serves on the board of the Obama Foundation.

Previously from Chicago