A group of lobbyists is suing Secretary of State William F. Galvin, arguing that his office has unlawfully required the lobbyists to disclose the names of every public official they have communicated with in the course of their work during the first six months of the year.
“I don’t have any problem telling people who I spoke with,” said Pam Wilmot, the head of the government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.
But, Wilmot said, the plaintiffs believe Galvin’s office is interpreting the disclosure requirements too broadly, and “doing so retroactively, I might add, which makes it impossible for anyone to comply.”
Galvin, in a phone interview on Tuesday, said about 70 percent of the state’s registered lobbyists have complied with the applicable requirements. He said his office has made clear that casual conversations at social functions or on the street are not applicable under the law.
“The basic effort here is to avoid disclosure,” he said of the lawsuit.
The dispute stems from a provision of a bill that Governor Deval Patrick signed into law in 2009 to toughen ethics requirements for lobbyists, following corruption scandals involving the now-jailed former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and others.
Under the law, lobbyists must file detailed reports outlining several aspects of their work, including the bills that they are supporting or opposing and the names of their relevant clients, as well as a list of “all direct business associations with public officials.”
In the civil complaint filed on Tuesday, Wilmot and the other plaintiffs argue that Galvin’s office is going too far with the law, using the business associations clause to unlawfully compel them to name every public official they have communicated with between Jan. 1 and June 30.
Galvin’s office asked for that information after the lobbyists filed reports in July indicating that they had no business associations with public officials. The complaint states that prior to July, his office had informally told lobbyists that the business association clause meant they had to disclose the names of officials whom “the agent has lobbied on an identified item and with whom the agent has a direct business relationship of a financial nature, giving as an example a public official who is lobbied by an agent who is a partner with the public official in the ownership of a car wash.”
The plaintiffs also said that they reported having no business associations with officials in four prior filings with the state, which Galvin’s office did not question.
However, the complaint states, Galvin’s lobbying division changed course last month, telling the plaintiffs in e-mails that the names of all officials they had communicated with as part of their lobbying activity were covered under the clause.
Marie Marra, supervisor of the lobbyist section, is also targeted in the suit. “In applying the ordinary and plain meaning of the words ‘direct business association,’ it is readily apparent that the law requires reporting those with whom you associated in the course of your business,” read one e-mail that the lobbying division sent to a plaintiff on Aug. 30. “Where your business is lobbying, the law requires disclosure of the public officials lobbied.”
When asked about the apparent reversal, Galvin said his office began asking for more detailed information after it became clear that some lobbyists seeking to win state contracts for clients were able to avoid disclosing the names of officials in the executive branch with whom they spoke.
“We have to treat the executive and the legislative lobbyists the same,” he said.
Another plaintiff in the suit, Susan Reid of Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts, said in a phone interview that the business association interpretation was flawed, noting that most of the plaintiffs in the case are registered lobbyists who represent public advocacy groups.
“We’re not in business” with the lawmakers, she said. “We’re nonprofit organizations. . . . They’re asking us to declare that we have these business relationships when none exist.”