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Parties Subject to Myriad Rules

A set of new and apparently murky ethics laws that govern what Members and staff can do at the conventions has had one indisputable effect: confusion.

Companies, associations and other groups that are feting the political elite have taken widely varying interpretations of the new ethics laws that apply to events held at the party nominating conventions.

Some groups have found a way around ethics restraints by hosting parties that benefit charities. Others are actually charging Members and Congressional aides to attend.

A corporate-sponsored reception held Sunday night featured the tunes of KT Tunstall. Organizers said Congressional ethics committees deemed Tunstall so well-known that attendance at her concert would constitute a thing of value. As a result, those officials could give a suggested donation of $22 for the ticket, with proceeds going to the group No Greater Sacrifice.

A concert Wednesday night hosted by the ONE Campaign and the Recording Industry Association of America, featuring Kanye West, a bigger name by far, was originally free to all Members and staff because it was considered a “widely attended” event.

But on Monday the RIAA sent out an e-mail to guests noting that while the Senate Ethics Committee had affirmed that designation, the House ethics committee had not approved the event. “As such, we are asking House Members and staff who want to attend to pay fair market value for their ticket. The per person fair market value for this event is $90,” the e-mail said, adding that “House Members and staff who already picked up their credentials in Washington will be asked for payment, by check or cash, at the door to the event.”

In Minneapolis, medical device maker Medtronic has planned a late-night reception for 1,500 people. It will feature performers from the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” and because of that, the company is charging $35 for Members and Congressional staff to attend.

“We sat down with our internal and external lawyers, who looked at what the ethics rules are for those state delegations and the issues we needed to consider from the statewide perspective as well as the federal level,” Medtronic spokesman Rob Clark said. “We have been able to put together an event that meets all the respective guidelines for people to attend and enjoy themselves and learn a little.”

Confused yet?

Ethics lawyer Ken Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said charity functions at the conventions receive the widest leeway.

“The charity exception is definitely usable, and charities enjoy greater latitude under the ethics laws because they can provide gifts and big-name entertainment, which would be prohibited under other circumstances,” he said. But, he added, the event had to be a “bona fide charity fundraising event. You can’t just slap the name of a charity on top.”

In order for it to be a legitimate charity fundraiser, Gross said, at least half of the event’s proceeds must benefit charitable organizations.

In order to qualify for the “reception exemption,” a party must include only food of nominal value — no meals or lavish buffets — and cannot offer big-name entertainment.

“A wedding band or a band you would hire to play at a bar mitzvah would be OK,” Gross said. “But if the musician was Bon Jovi or Springsteen, then that would be an illegal gift” for Members and Congressional staff.

The “widely attended” events, however, can include bigger-name entertainment in some cases, Gross said. If a group invites everybody from a delegation and then has a big-name performer, then Members and staffers’ attendance should be considered kosher.

Robert Kelner, chairman of the election and political law practice group at Covington & Burling, said for an event to be considered widely attended it must include more than 25 guests outside of Congress and “Members and staff must reasonably be able to say they have an official purpose for being there.”

He added, “If the whole thing is a Rolling Stones concert, it’s awfully hard for a Member or staffer to say with a straight face that they have an official purpose for being there,” Kelner said. “If an event presents an opportunity for a Member or staffer to meet constituents or to learn about a particular industry, those are all reasonable grounds.”

The whole concert situation has turned Congressional ethics committees into something akin to music critics.

“Just as ethics lawyers like myself have had to learn to practice catering law, the ethics committee staffers have been put in a position of acting as music reviewers to some extent in drawing distinctions between different kinds of musical entertainment,” Kelner said.

The new ethics rules have actually helped scare off some lobbyists.

Dan Mattoon of Mattoon & Associates said he hasn’t missed a GOP convention since 1988. But this year, with the combination of new restrictions on lobbyist-hosted parties and his own scheduling conflicts, Mattoon is skipping the Twin Cities.

“The ethics rules are diluting the ability to honor a particular Member of Congress or Senator, and really most of the things are things you could do in Washington already, and you don’t really need to go to Minneapolis or Denver,” Mattoon said.

But most still find the party spirit hard to shake, and to cover their flank, are including various disclaimers on event invites.

The lawyers at Patton Boggs, which is holding Wrap parties in both convention cities, did the leg work for Members and staff and have proudly included an assurance on their invites.

“This event has been approved by the Senate Ethics Committee,” the invite states. While not a blanket OK, the invite also says that the firm “consulted informally” with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and refers questions to that committee.

By contrast, an invitation to Party with a Purpose from the Perennial Strategy Group includes a disclaimer: “*Applicable federal and state law may prohibit Congressional Members and their staff and state employees from attending this event.”

Daryl Friedman, a lobbyist for the Grammy’s, said his organization’s charity, the Grammy Foundation, is hosting and benefiting from musical events at both conventions. Both events feature well-known performers including Daughtry, Everclear and the Flobots.

“We actually got approval from both the Senate and House because we meet all the requirements,” Friedman said. “We wanted to deliver a message. We’re about music, and we’re using musicians. Between acts we’ll have our executives talking about the importance of music and culture.”

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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