A Suffolk Superior Court judge has ordered Secretary of State William F. Galvin to cover more than $100,000 in attorneys’ fees for a group of lobbyists who challenged his zealous interpretation of the state’s revamped ethics laws.
Judge Janet Sanders found that Galvin had overstepped his legal authority by trying to force lobbyists to report every time they spoke to a legislator or state official, even while passing one of them in a steakhouse or State House hallway.
The lobbyists who filed the lawsuit were a diverse group that included business interests as well as a prominent government watchdog organization that traditionally advocates for stricter lobbying rules.
Robert E. Gibbons, a veteran hospital and health industry lobbyist and one of the plaintiffs, said he might have 45 or 50 conversations a day with legislators and cannot even remember them all, let alone report them to Galvin’s office.
“The judge agreed it was ridiculous on its face,” Gibbons said Wednesday.
The ruling is a blow to Galvin’s efforts to try to pry loose more information about lobbyists’ dealings on Beacon Hill, an often secretive area that exploded into the public eye when former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and Richard McDonough, a veteran State House lobbyist, were convicted two years ago of trying to help a software company win state contracts in exchange for kickbacks.
Galvin said he was disappointed with the decision and may appeal it; Sanders issued her initial ruling against Galvin in February, and ordered him to pay the $102,000 in legal fees a little over a week ago.
Galvin said he was particularly concerned that lobbyists, who spent $119.6 million to influence state policy last year, do not need to disclose the names of lawmakers and officials they are lobbying on contracts, bills, or regulations. He said he does not want lobbyists to disclose casual conversations, only those that pertain to public policy.
“My goal is to connect these massive amounts of money that are being spent to influence public policy to the actual policymakers who are the object of this effort,” Galvin said. “What is it that they are pursuing from these policymakers?”
Former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger, who helped craft the 2009 lobbying law that is at issue in the case, said he agreed with Galvin that it is important for lobbyists to disclose even brief, policy-
related conversations they have with legislators and officials.
“What goes on behind closed doors or in the halls in casual conversations, while it seems to be an intrusion, the reality is, that’s where a lot of lobbying occurs,” Harshbarger said.
The six lobbyists who brought the lawsuit include representatives of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a business lobby, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, as well Pamela H. Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group that often pushes for tighter ethics and lobbying laws.
Wilmot, like Harshbarger a former national president of Common Cause, was a member of a task force that helped write the 2009 lobbying law after the DiMasi scandal. She could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Richard C. Lord, president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the fact that the plaintiffs represent such diverse interests shows they all agreed that Galvin was pushing the law too far.
The law currently requires lobbyists to send Galvin a report every six months that documents their expenditures, including campaign contributions, the names of the bills or regulations they are trying to influence, the groups they are representing, and how much they are being paid.
But Galvin’s demand that lobbyists disclose the names of the lawmakers and officials they meet and talk to would have placed “a huge administrative burden” on lobbyists, Lord said.
The lobbyists were represented by Carl Valvo, whose firm — Cosgrove, Eisenberg & Kiley — also represented DiMasi in his federal corruption trial. The plaintiffs set up a group, Citizens for Public Policy Advocacy, that sought $400 donations from every lobbyist in the state to pay the legal bills.
Valvo would not disclose how much the group raised, but said it was “not enough” to defray the cost of the litigation. That means Galvin will have to use taxpayer funds to pay the $102,865 in legal bills incurred by the plaintiffs.
In trying to force lobbyists to disclose their conversations with lawmakers, Galvin seized on a part of the lobbying law that requires lobbyists to report their “direct business associations” with public officials.
But Sanders rejected that interpretation. “To put it bluntly, this argument makes absolutely no sense,” she wrote, adding that Galvin’s case was based on a “mangled use of the English language.”
Sanders said the plain intent of the law was to require lobbyists to disclose formal business relationships they have with lawmakers and officials, not meetings or conversations to influence public policy.
Representative Peter V. Kocot, a Northampton Democrat who helped write the law, agreed. He said the Legislature never intended lobbyists to disclose which lawmakers and officials they are buttonholing in State House hallways.
“The pure volume of information that would have resulted . . . would be extremely difficult for the average person to weed through,” he said.
Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@