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Scratch the Suites, Just Get Me Tickets!

Last year’s gift ban swiftly put an end to the American — well, Beltway — tradition of lobbyists taking Members and staffers out to the old ball game. With the home team Washington Nationals’ Opening Night less than three weeks away, K Street has

mostly eschewed the pricey, made-to-impress luxury suites that would have dazzled Congressional denizens in the pre-ban era.

But with a few exceptions, most big lobbying shops still have bought season tickets in the new stadium for their employees and clients to use.

“There was some question of are we still going to buy them given the new lobbying rules,” said Tom Carpenter, a vice president at Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates.

“But we have a pretty good contingent of baseball fans and have used the tickets as a firm perk and a way to take potential clients out to a game.”

The firm’s four seats, located on the first baseline eight rows from the field, are hot tickets around the office. “Basically we take requests at the beginning of every month,” Carpenter said. “Client use definitely trumps personal use.”

But it can become a dicey situation when multiple lobbyists along with their clients are clamoring for the same tickets. “So far, we’ve avoided any major controversies,” he said.

Brian Peters, director of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council, is in charge of his group’s four seats also near the first baseline. He has the tickets, which arrived in a “big special fancy box,” under lock and key.

The requests from his colleagues, including boss Ralph Hellmann, have flooded in, especially for opening night on March 30 against the Atlanta Braves. President Bush has been invited to throw out the opening pitch.

“I have become a very popular guy around the office and among our member companies,” Peters said. “Ralph is definitely lobbying me very hard, as you would expect.”

Despite the enthusiasm, some lobbyists opted out of the Nats’ new ballpark altogether because of the gift ban.

Stewart Hall, a founder of Ogilvy Government Relations, said his firm decided against getting season tickets because of the new ethics restrictions. “There’s no sense in investing in them if you can’t give them out,” he said.

Another lobbyist with a different firm said his operation got rid of its Nationals tickets even before the new gift ban passed last year because staffers and Members felt jittery about taking them from lobbyists.

The clearly disappointed lobbyist said he hopes the Nationals’ business suffers as a result of the gift ban. “I want to see Nationals stadium boarded up with rats crawling all over,” he said, only half-jokingly.

The law firm Covington & Burling is sharing a suite, according to one lobbyist there. “To my knowledge,” this lobbyist said, Covington “has about a quarter season in a suite that others also share.”

But some corporate offices, which have much deeper pockets than the typical lobby shop or even large law firm, have stayed away from the luxury suites or even season tickets.

“The answer is no,” said PepsiCo’s Galen Reser, who said the company was not motivated by ethics changes. “We’re cheap,” he quipped.

The suites definitely don’t come cheap.

Nationals spokeswoman Chartese Burnett said they range in price from $165,000 to $400,000 a year with a mandatory five-, seven- or 10-year commitment.

The Nationals’ new ballpark, located within walking distance of Capitol Hill, has 66 suites, Burnett said, and more than two-thirds of those have been sold. She declined to name any of the suite holders.

As for restrictions on lobbyists, she said, “We just have no comment on the whole lobbying thing.”

Even though lobbying firms like Dutko Worldwide may not be allowed to give away tickets to Members or Congressional aides, the shop has found other recipients for its six seats located right behind home plate.

Originally, the firm’s 15 partners were going to draw straws to select which of them would go to opening night, but instead lobbyist David Beightol, who represents the Baseball Hall of Fame, decided Dutko should donate its tickets to five wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with the remaining ticket going to a Hall of Fame player. The firm has already organized the donation to the soldiers, but the Hall of Famer is still in the works, he said.

“We were having this discussion, hearing how valuable these tickets are,” Beightol said. “This is a really big deal. So we thought, ‘What could we do to make it a bigger deal for somebody else?’ Who else would you rather help out than these men and women who have been sacrificing themselves for us?”

Dutko Chief Executive Officer Mark Irion said that most of the tickets for other games will go to Dutko lobbyists to entertain clients.

“We’re big-time Nats fans,” he said. “We’re a 13-minute leisurely walk from the new stadium.”

William Minor, a partner with DLA Piper who specializes in political law and Congressional and lobbying ethics, said that even though Members and staff may not receive Nats tickets as gifts from lobbyists, those on the Congressional payroll are permitted to purchase the tickets at face value.

To play it safe, DLA Piper, which has a collection of Nationals season tickets for its employees and clients, is keeping an eye out to avoid potential ethics violations at Nats stadium, Minor added.

“In the wake of the changes to the gift rules, we set in place procedures to make sure that those tickets aren’t even inadvertently given to people on the Hill,” he said. “An e-mail goes out saying, ‘We’ve got some tickets. If you have clients let us know.’ And a reminder goes on the e-mail … to remind people they can’t be used by people on the Hill.”

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