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Aides Escape Conflict Rules

While House and Senate lawmakers agreed in February to new rules requiring them to notify the public of any conflicts of interest they may have in pushing for earmarks to legislation, there remain no such guidelines for disclosure by another category of public servants — Congressional aides.

Though in recent years significant attention has been paid to the lobbyist relatives of lawmakers — including the sons of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — little public scrutiny has been paid to similar situations at the staff level.

Neither chamber has established rules to address financial or personal conflicts of interest staffers may have in working on earmarks, and watchdog groups fear that absence represents a major loophole in Congressional ethics guidelines.

“When people look at Congress, they think that the [Members] are the important ones … [but] in the past relatives of aides have lobbied and gotten earmarks and the same sort of rules should apply to the staff,” said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that has spearheaded the push for ethics reforms in Congress.

While Congress and outside reformers have been slow to take up the issue, the possibility of unethical behavior has at least in one case drawn scrutiny from federal investigators. The FBI last year launched an investigation of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), state director Andy Wallace, former aide Michael Oscar and Defense appropriations aide Vicki Siegel after media reports linked the aides to earmarks secured for companies represented by their relatives.

Although an internal investigation by Specter found no wrongdoing on the part of his current and former aides, a report prepared on the inquiry did acknowledge that a lack of controls on the access of Siegel’s husband, Michael Herson, and other lobbyists with familial ties to Specter aides led to the appearance of a conflict of interest.

With no uniform rules governing the connection between lobbyists and aides, some lawmakers have instituted their own rules. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for instance, have strict rules prohibiting relatives of aides from lobbying their offices.

Likewise, a spokesman for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — whose wife, Catherine, is a lobbyist — said “Sen. Stevens has a long-standing policy that staff members’ spouses or his spouse is not to lobby them on any issue.”

A Reid spokesman also said the Majority Leader has banned lobbying of his office by the spouses of aides.

Following the investigation of his office, Specter put in place new rules governing his staff, including a ban on family members of aides lobbying Specter or his staff, barring aides from dealing with firms that employ their family members and full disclosure of any such relationships throughout the earmark consideration process.

Although no firm statistics are available, it appears to be fairly common for Members to employ one or more staffers who are related to lobbyists, including husbands, wives and children. Current and former aides speculated that dozens of aides in both chambers have intimate relationships with lobbyists at both K Street firms and individual companies.

Most often, marriages between lobbyists and staff arise naturally from the close professional and personal contact they have with each other — “professional” Washington, D.C., is a relatively small community, and lobbyists and aides often socialize together, play in softball leagues with one another and have enough contact that romances are bound to bloom.

Additionally, because of the revolving door between Congress and Capitol Hill, staff members who get married while they both work on the Hill often end up with one spouse leaving the legislative branch to take a better-paying position at a lobbying firm.

But despite the potential for widespread conflicts of interest at the staff level, little attention has been paid to the subject by the public as well as reformers. “It’s been overlooked so far,” lamented Allison, adding that in the post-Abramoff push to reform ethics rules in the House and Senate, staff-level issues “really fell off the radar.”

Allison and other reformers point out that one of the unspoken realities of Washington is that in many ways connections to staff can be even more valuable than member-level access.

Given lawmakers’ busy schedules, the number of different issues Members must juggle and press scrutiny of their personal lives, “sometimes the staff can be more important than the Members … because the Members rely on the staff for information,” Allison said.

Beyond the issue of relatives lobbying staff for earmarks, Allison and other watchdogs also warn there are numerous areas in which the potential for conflicts of interest could arise. For instance, neither chamber included conflict of interest disclosure rules for anything other than earmarks, despite the fact that the vast majority of lobbyists in Washington are not strictly appropriations-focused.

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