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Ethics Clarifies Maze of Gift Rules

In the seven-page advisory memo issued by the House ethics committee last week on the chamber’s new gift rules, Members and aides looking for clarity should focus on a line on page 2: “When in doubt, a gift should not be accepted.”

The new gift rules enacted by Democrats are part of their campaign pledge to change the way Congress and K Street do business, and in many respects the rules already have had an impact on lobbyists’ interaction with Capitol Hill — although not always in the ways they were intended.

For example, the American Library Association will kick off its annual convention this Friday and 26,000 of the nation’s librarians will be in Washington, D.C., in part to lobby for the group’s mission “to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information.”

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of ALA’s Washington office, said the new rules have prompted some unwelcome changes in the library world. “Normally we would be encouraging our librarians to go to the Hill to bring trinkets, like bookmarks and gifts from publishers, that kind of thing, but we are not encouraging that now,” she said.

The group — which did receive the go-ahead to host a “Library Day” in the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building next week to promote “innovative library services” — also had to scale back an effort to get lawmakers to participate in the ALA’s popular READ poster initiative that encourages people to read, and includes a number of celebrity supporters such as actor Anthony Hopkins and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Sheketoff said the group was planning to take photographs of Members with their favorite books as part of the poster campaign so that the ALA could in turn send copies of the posters to libraries in their Congressional districts, but that effort had to be scaled back because the posters are valued at $14 — four dollars above the $10 cutoff point now defined by the gift rules. So the ALA is now using smaller posters, valued at $7.99, to avoid an ethics violation.

The ALA’s circumstance is in line with a series of detailed examples outlined by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct last week in an effort to help clarify the new gift rules for Members and staff, but there are few hard and fast rules.

For instance, a Member could attend a trade association’s holiday party and eat the hors d’oeuvres offered, but could not attend an informational briefing on a policy matter by the same association and eat the boxed lunch provided by the group if they employ a lobbyist.

In another example, a Member can accept a $15 baseball hat from a company that employs lobbyists, but the Member could not accept a $12 coffee mug from the same company. “The Member may not accept the mug,” the panel wrote. “Under Committee precedent, Members and staff should not rely on the ‘items of nominal value’ provision in accepting any item having a value of $10 or more (except for a greeting card, baseball cap, or T-shirt).”

The memo also offers further explanation of the rules, such as one allowing Members and staff to still go to events with lobbyists if they are “widely attended” gatherings. The panel defines such an event as one where at least 25 people are expected to attend, there are a “range of persons” interested in the matter, the invite list is not limited to “Members, officers, or employees of the Congress” and the event is reasonably related to a Member or staffer’s official duties.

Questions on the new rules — and concerns about unintentionally breaking them — appear to have more lobbyists and organizations disengaging from their old practices rather than trying to figure out how to play by the new rules.

“I think most people are definitely cutting off their activities,” observed Wright Andrews of Butera & Andrews, who used to head up the American League of Lobbyists. “But what all of this has done has continued to drive people to the fundraising process.”

The new gift rules do not apply to Members or aides when they attend political events, such as fundraisers or campaign events. “Members and staff may continue to accept free attendance at political events under this provision, even when lobbyists will attend the event or are involved in, or such individuals are employed by, the political organization,” the ethics panel memo states.

“I think the net effect of the rules definitely has been to limit dramatically the social interchange [with lobbyists] in the sense of the meals and activities. That’s just gone except for fundraising,” Andrews said, explaining that many lobbyists would like to see a de minimis exemption so not all meals with lobbyists were verboten. Andrews added, however, that the current climate is not in favor of lobbyists and the rules are not going to change anytime soon.

“I don’t think [lobbyists] should be able to go on extended junkets or anything like that or be able to give people $100 seats to a ball game, but some type of minimal amounts for meals or other activities, that would be a lot better,” he said. “But the people outside the Beltway don’t understand that. It’s got to go through this cycle and we’ll see what happens.”

Tom Susman, a partner and lobbyist with Ropes & Gray, offered a similar assessment. “I’ve been part of this town for a long time. I think most Members and lobbyists aren’t corrupt and our social fabric is built around politics and government, just like the social fabric in Los Angeles is built around Hollywood and movies, and to say that you can’t socialize easily tends to put a crimp in that social fabric,” he said. “When a lobbyist picks up a tab at lunch I don’t automatically think it’s nefarious.”

The ethics committee also issued a notice to Members and staff that the adoption of a May 24 Rules change amended the current rules to now allow attendance at charitable events. The new rules unintentionally had included such events as part of the ban, because many charitable organizations also employ lobbyists.

Members and staff are allowed to attend charitable events as long as they are invited by the sponsor of the event and not by a lobbyist who paid for a table at the event, for instance. The purpose of the event also must be to raise money for an entity that is granted 501(c)(3) status by the IRS.

The committee also said it will issue an additional memorandum on rules affecting officially connected travel in the near future.

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