House Foreign Affairs ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) canceled a planned fundraiser Monday after Roll Call raised questions about her invitation to lobbyists to join an advisory council that she would consult on foreign policy matters — in exchange for $2,500 campaign contributions.
The offer of special access to the Congresswoman in exchange for campaign donations appeared to violate a House ethics committee guideline that specifically discourages this type of fundraising solicitation, though it is not a violation of any law.
“The event which was scheduled for Tuesday, April 27th in Washington, DC has been cancelled due to a misunderstanding and to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Keith Fernandez, a spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen for Congress, told Roll Call in an e-mail.
Ros-Lehtinen’s Thursday e-mail invited each recipient “to serve as a member of my advisory group by attending my April 27 dinner.” The invite notes that the Congresswoman serves as ranking member of the committee and promises that “when the GOP regain[s] the majority, I would turn to you for advice on pertinent issues affecting our nation.”
The subject line of the e-mail read: “Ros-Lehtinen invites YOU to join her Foreign Affairs Advisory Board.”
The event was described as a “small and intimate dinner” at the Capital Grille, a favorite power broker steakhouse a few blocks from the Capitol, and notes that the Congresswoman is “asking $2500 per PAC.”
The House Ethics Manual states: “a Member should not sponsor or participate in any solicitation that offers donors any special access to the Member in the Member’s official capacity.”
The manual cites a 1987 ruling by the Senate Ethics Committee that a “chairman’s council” set up by then-Senate Finance Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) with an entry fee of $10,000 per political action committee “creates the appearance that contributors receive special access to the Members, and thereby exercise undue influence on the legislative process.”
The Senate Ethics Committee concluded, “While solicitations offering access to policy discussion groups may violate no law or Senate rule, they nonetheless affect public confidence in the Senate” and should be avoided.
The House Ethics Manual says, “House Members should adhere to the same standard.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s foreign policy advisory group appeared to be similar to Bentsen’s “Chairman’s Council,” and it appears to have suffered a similar fate. The Washington Post wrote about the Texan’s group in a front-page story in February 1987, saying Bentsen’s invite promised that he would be “relying on members of the Chairman’s Council for advice, assistance and early financial support crucial to a successful campaign.” The group was to meet for breakfast monthly.
Shortly after the story ran, Bentsen shuttered the group, saying: “I’m not known to make many mistakes, but when I do, it’s a doozy. … In forming the breakfast club, I really blew it.” Bentsen said: “I didn’t anticipate the perception of it. The last thing I want is anything that would reflect on my integrity.”
Seven months later, the Senate Ethics Committee issued its “interpretative ruling” confirming that Bentsen’s council was a bad idea.
Ethics experts say Members are generally counseled to stay far away from mentioning their Congressional activities in fundraising appeals. One source said most fundraising letters go no further than mentioning the committee the Member sits on.
Nancy Watzman, director of the Sunlight Foundation’s Party Time project, which tracks fundraising activities, said the Ros-Lehtinen invitation was “about as blatant as I’ve ever heard.” Watzman said in most invitations, the offer of access in exchange for contributions is “kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink — that’s what these are all about.”
“Almost every single invitation will state what committees these Members sit on,” Watzman said. “And why would you do this unless you were advertising I can do this for you’?”
But Watzman said, “It’s very difficult to prove that it violates any actual law. … It certainly violates the spirit.”