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Forget About the Flowers

Ethics Rules Cloud Romance on the Hill

With just 48 hours left before Valentine’s Day, lobbyists looking to woo a new Capitol Hill crush with a fancy dinner or romantic bauble might want to consider more than just where to book a table and how to find the perfect gift. They also would be wise to brush up on ethics rules.

The newly imposed House standards, including a ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists, deal with the professional relationship between K Street and Congress, but they have infused interactions of a much more personal nature with an element of confusion.

“This is what we’ve come to — if you want to go on a date in Washington, you first have to get an advisory opinion from the ethics committee,” said Brett Kappel, a lobbyist and ethics lawyer at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, only partially joking. The Senate has passed a similar ban, but it has yet to take effect.

While the new rules come complete with many exceptions and retain an existing friendship exemption, they still leave plenty of room for uncertainty, especially when it comes to first dates and who pays. And perhaps more importantly, they take away some of the subtleties of casually moving from a “working lunch,” where the lobbyist picks up the tab, to an actual night-on-the-town date.

“The long and short of it is that the new lobbying rules definitely add a new wrinkle to the courtship process,” said lobbyist Andy Rosenberg, who is not married.

Other male lobbyists, though, took a different view.

“I think male lobbyists everywhere should be applauding the new gift rules,” quipped Mike Thompson, a lobbyist for Fannie Mae who met his future wife, Jennifer, when both were staffers for Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). Thompson, who continued dating her after he moved to K Street, conceded that he usually paid when the two went out and that he “never even thought about” gift limits applying to the relationship.

Meanwhile, Biotechnology Industry Organization lobbyist Paul Poteet was introduced to his fiancee, Claudia Bridgeford, when he was an aide to Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) and she was a trade lobbyist. He subsequently transitioned to K Street and she got a job with the Senate Finance Committee, but that didn’t change who ponied up for the bill: “I’m from Louisiana so I’m a Southern gentleman. I’m always going to be paying regardless of the ethics rules. ”

Of course, any gift limits or bans are less likely to prove an obstacle if the K Street factor in the love equation is female.

Take the romance between House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and his wife, Abigail, who is a lobbyist for Altria. If they had just started dating today, “I’m confident that the new rules would not impact them, because Congressman Blunt is an old-fashioned gentleman who always picks up the tab,” said his spokeswoman, Burson Snyder.

Similarly, when Kate Prible, director of federal legislative affairs for the Credit Union National Association, started dating her future husband a few years back, he was an aide to Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), but gift limits didn’t factor in because “he always paid for me.” Prible added that they were careful to “fully disclose to his boss and my boss that we were dating.” And though Prible did lobby him occasionally in group settings, “I didn’t lobby him too hard. We didn’t have any pressing issues at the time,” she said.

But some relationships may not have flourished as well under today’s rules.

Lobbyist Robb Watters, who in 1999 worked at the firm Jefferson Government Relations, was running nearly an hour late for an 11 a.m. meeting with his future wife, Blair, then a House Commerce Committee aide for former Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), to lobby on Internet spam legislation.

“I walked in and apologized and said, ‘Can we meet for lunch instead?’” he said.

On his client’s tab, Watters bought the pair burgers at Bullfeathers of Capitol Hill — something that is banned under current rules. The old rules permitted lobbyists to pay for a gift or meal worth $49.99 excluding tax and tip, with a yearly max of $99.99.

“It was a lobbying lunch, we were discussing the legislation,” Watters said. “The fact that she was very attractive didn’t really dawn on me until after we’d ordered.”

During the meal, he invited her to a charity event that evening where his firm had purchased a table for several Congressional staffers, another no-no now.

Watters said the lines between lobbying blurred into dating. “I called her the next day to check up on whether her boss was going to sponsor the bill and see if she wanted to have dinner to discuss the bill,” he said, adding that they discussed almost no work at that dinner and he paid for the tab with his own money, making it the couple’s first real date.

“Thank God the new rules didn’t exist then,” Watters said. “If, in fact, I had not been smart enough to marry my wife five years ago and she were still working on the Hill, then Congress might have kept our love apart.” The two now have a 9-month-old daughter, Marin, and run a lobbying firm, the Madison Group, together.

Attorney Ken Gross, an ethics rules expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, agreed that the new gift ban “might put a damper on romance.”

He said that the friendship exemption, which allows staff and lawmakers to accept gifts up to $250 from their lobbyist buddies, does “not address a normal dating situation. … There may not be a reciprocity of gifts and there may not be a pre-existing relationship — the types of things the ethics committee looks for,” Gross observed. (Also, even if a couple did meet the friendship exemption and a lobbyist wanted to buy something for a Hill sweetheart for more than $250, they’d still need to seek an ethics waiver, he said.)

Gross said one way potential Congressional-K Street couples could avoid any ethics confusion would be to go Dutch. (Or you could propose — since fiances are viewed as family under ethics rules and not subject to gift restrictions.)

So will Hill women be willing to start paying their fair share for romantic outings with their K Street honeys?

“No, they’ll think [the men] are cheap,” said Gross, adding with a laugh: “And they’ll say, ‘No, it’s just the ethics manual. Have you checked it recently?’”

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