Letters from the West

Did Alta Mesa violate lobby laws? Denney says company needs to register as lobbyist

The natural gas dehydration plant owned by a subsidiary of Alta Mesa near New Plymouth.
The natural gas dehydration plant owned by a subsidiary of Alta Mesa near New Plymouth. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

For seven hours late into the night of March 9, representatives of petroleum companies Alta Mesa, its partner Snake River Oil & Gas/Weiser Brown Oil Co. and LoneTree Petroleum met with Gov. Butch Otter and several legislators behind closed doors to try and hammer out a compromise on oil and gas legislation.

LoneTree, a Wyoming company, backs Rep. Judy Boyle’s bill to rewrite oil and gas code in Idaho, seven years after gas was discovered in Payette County. Alta Mesa, the only company producing oil and gas in the state from eight wells near New Plymouth, has opposed the bill Boyle introduced March. 1.

Boyle, R-Midvale, introduced a revised bill Thursday that she said includes changes requested by Alta Mesa.

Lobbyists for both sides complained about the lobbying credentials for the people working on the issue and who participated in the March 9 meeting.

State officials present included Boyle, Rep. Ryan Kerby, R- New Plymouth, Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Gov. Butch Otter. The chairs of the House and Senate resource committees, Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace and Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, attended, as did staff from the Idaho Department of Lands and the governor’s office.

Alta Mesa registered lobbyists Kate Haas and Mike Christian and four other Alta Mesa employees were involved in the discussions in person. Others called in by phone.

C.J. McDonald, who is registered as a lobbyist for LoneTree Petroleum, participated in the meeting, as did Suzanne Budge, the former executive director of the Idaho Petroleum Council, who is registered to lobby on other issues. Payette rancher J.G. Schwarz said he, rancher Harry Soulen of Weiser and Payette County landowner Mike Roe, a Boise lawyer, participated on their own behalf. Richard Brown, whose Snake River Oil and Gas is a major investor in the Alta Mesa oil and gas drilling in Payette County, also was there.

John Foster, Haas and Christian are registered as lobbyists for AM Idaho and other subsidiaries of the Houston-based petroleum company. But neither the corporation nor its executives have registered to lobby, despite regular contacts between CEO Hal Chappelle and other employees with legislators, Gov. Butch Otter and other state officials.

Such contacts are a violation of the state’s lobbying laws, according to Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney.

Idaho statute says lobbying “means attempting through contacts with, or causing others to make contact with, members of the legislature or legislative committees or an executive official, to influence the approval, modification or rejection of any legislation by the legislature of the state of Idaho or any committee thereof or by the governor or to develop or maintain relationships with, promote goodwill with, or entertain members of the legislature or executive officials.”

Those contacts include communications influencing rulemaking, the statute says.

The law exempts employees of a corporation, if the corporation registers as a lobbyist.

Records at the Secretary of State’s Office show that Alta Mesa has not registered. A week before the March 9 meeting, Chappelle was in the Capitol meeting with Otter, lawmakers and other state officials.

Denney said the only proper lobbying contact for unregistered corporate CEOs or their employees is to testify in an open meeting. He said Alta Mesa appears to be out of compliance, but he also said he had no intention of fining them and has received no complaint against them.

“Our thing is not the money,” Denney said. “It’s the disclosure.”

He won’t act unless he gets a complaint, he said. A violation is a misdemeanor under state code, subject to a fine of up $2,500. But a remedy for such a violation is to register as a lobbyist.

“We call them. If they are reasonable, we do not fine them,” Denney said.

Budge and former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig have lobbied on oil and gas issues extensively on behalf of themselves, LoneTree and other companies interested in doing business in Idaho and western Oregon, both said. But neither gets paid for that lobbying, they said.

Denney and his Chief Deputy Tim Hurst said Budge and Craig are not in violation of the lobbying statute, because they don’t get paid. Schwarz, who were representing himself, is not required to register as a lobbyist, Denney and Hurst said. Soulen and Roe, representing themselves, fall into the same category.

Alta Mesa lobbyist and AM Idaho spokesman Foster disputed that the company was out of compliance. He noted that Boyle represents the district Denney formerly represented in the Legislature. Larry Craig, he said, comes from the same hometown, Midvale.

“This would not be the first time Tim Hurst got it wrong,” Foster said. “It’s this kind of political gamesmanship that is making Idaho a difficult place to do business.”

This story has been revised to correct factual errors and include more detail about the attendees at the March 9 meeting.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker