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Ethics Issues Gift Warnings

After naming a new chief counsel last week, the House ethics committee issued what watchdog groups described as surprisingly strict guidelines interpreting two controversial changes to House gift rules pushed through by the GOP leadership in January.

The two moves appeared to represent another gesture of independence from ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who was angered by the GOP leadership’s decision to ignore his input during consideration of revisions that substantially weakened the chamber’s gift rules.

John Vargo, an ethics committee attorney who has been in charge of providing advice to lawmakers and staff on complying with ethics rules, was named chief counsel and staff director of the 10-member Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The decision was announced by Hefley and ranking member Alan Mollohan

(D-W.Va.) who, under a rule unique to the ethics committee, must jointly agree on the selection for the top committee staff job.

Vargo came to the panel in 1996 when Ted Van Der Meid, who currently serves as Counsel to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), was chief counsel and staff director of the committee. Vargo became director of the committee’s Office of Advice and Education in 1997.

Vargo is known to be “extraordinarily thorough and meticulous” in his handling of ethics matters and was described as “extremely scrupulous” by a former colleague.

In an advisory opinion dated April 11, the committee provided an interpretation of two changes to House gift rules that may cause lawmakers and staff to think twice before taking advantage of new provisions that permit lobbyists and special interests to provide meals to Congressional offices or to take free trips to so-called charitable events.

While the advisory opinion leaves the two provisions intact, the interpretation was considered to be fairly tough by watchdog groups, who have been accustomed to far weaker readings of the rules.

“Typically in the past, the ethics committee has done absolutely everything it could to make the weakest possible interpretation of the rules. That is not the case in this memo,” said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project.

Ruskin said the memo was “an indication that the chair and ranking member are unhappy with the weakening of the gift rules and want to do what they can to minimize the damage to the integrity of the House of Representatives.”

Under a rules change said to have been pushed by Hastert, food and beverages can be provided to Congressional offices without the amount counting towards the gift limit for the lawmaker in charge of that office. Instead, the amount can be divided among the individual recipients in the office. So, for example, a lobbying firm could send a buffet worth $200 if it is shared by five or more staffers in an office. Previously, such gifts would be banned because the limit exceeded the $50 limit for the individual lawmaker.

But the committee warned against running afoul of far more serious criminal statutes that might come into play.

“The Committee has also long advised that a gift of food sent to a House office for staff, even if within the dollar limits of the gift rule, must be refused entirely if the person offering it has a direct interest in the particular legislation or other official business on which staff is working at the time. Acceptance of the food in that circumstance may implicate the illegal gratuities statute, which prohibits the acceptance of any gift for or because of an official act,” the advisory said.

The Washington Post reported last October that the lobbying firm Clark & Weinstock sent pasta, salad and brownies to Hastert’s office on a late-June night when the House was voting on a prescription drug bill. The firm represented several drug companies advocating passage of the GOP-sponsored bill, including the Pharmaceutical Research and marketing Association.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery did not return a phone call seeking comment on the ethics committee’s new interpretation.

The guidelines also recommended that staffers who accept such freebies keep detailed records. “In order to comply in good faith with the dollar limitations on gifts, a staff member who is offered such a gift of food must learn both the identity of the donor and the dollar value of the food provided,” the memo said.

The panel also said it would scrutinize trips associated with a new loophole opened up under a controversial rules change engineered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

(R-Texas) that allows lawmakers and staff to accept free lodging and travel to attend self-described charitable events that are often thinly disguised recreational junkets catering to golf and tennis enthusiasts.

“An event is a ‘charity event’ for purposes of the rule only if the primary purpose of the event is to raise funds for charity. Thus the mere fact that a donation to charity will result from an event does not necessarily mean that a Member or staff person may accept from the sponsor an offer of free attendance at, or travel expenses to, the event. An event will likely be deemed a “charity event” for purposes of the rule where the participants or attendees pay an admission fee, and more than half of the fee paid is tax deductible as a charitable donation. Where an event has any other format, a Member or staff person considering attending the event should first consult with the Standards Committee to ensure that it constitutes a ‘charity event’ for purposes of the gift rule,” the memo advised.

Lawmakers and staff also need to be careful about who pays the tab.

“Travel expenses to the event may not be accepted from any donor to or participant in the event, or from anyone else. Furthermore, a Member or staff person may not accept transportation or lodging expenses from the beneficiary charity if those expenses would be paid using donations that were earmarked, either formally or informally, for payment of expenses of congressional participants.”

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