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Street Talk: Caviar Out at Ethically Kosher Hill Events

Should you catch a whiff of caviar, gentle reader, you had better bolt for the exit. And beware of forks and chairs. If a member of Congress or Hill staffer can’t eat it with a toothpick while standing up, they’d best go home.

This is how K Street and Congress celebrate the ethically compliant holiday season together.

At lobbyist-hosted receptions, fancy feasts are definite no-no’s for Hill types lest they violate gift rules. But a blessing for receptions with “food and refreshments of nominal value” allows the year-end schmoozing to carry on.

To help ensure a party meets approval, high-priced attorneys morph into catering consultants, vetting menus and pooh-poohing signs of opulence.

“This time of year, I’m practicing what I call catering law,” said Chris DeLacy, a partner at Holland & Knight.

It’s all in an attempt for lobbying interests to secure precious, and rare, social mingling time with the public sector.

William Minor, an ethics attorney at DLA Piper, said he finds himself issuing threats to go into the catering business altogether. “But ‘food or refreshments of nominal value’ doesn’t fit well on the side of a catering truck,” he quipped.

The House Ethics Committee, fielding a flood of questions from members and staff as well as K Street party planners, issued a fresh memo last week spelling out what is and isn’t kosher when it comes to the holidays. Receptions are fine, the memo reiterated, but while the panel didn’t put a dollar figure on the fare, it noted that luxury items such as caviar do not meet the “nominal value” exception.

Fish eggs won’t be on the menu of the National Association of Broadcasters holiday fete Dec. 11. The group went so far as to print: “This event is being held in compliance with federal rules regarding gifts” on its invitation.

“It’s basically a stand up and walk around, say hello to old friends and people who we’re sometimes fighting with during the day,” NAB’s Dennis Wharton said. “Life’s too short to have permanent enemies, so getting together around the holiday season seems like the right thing to do while we comply with some of these, what some would say are, silly ethics rules.”

Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International, is prepping for his shop’s reception Wednesday. Before the 2007 ethics and lobbying reforms, ADI’s party featured a pasta bar, but those days are gone.

“We make sure there are no forks,” Herson said. “I don’t even know if we have plates.”

ADI also eschews any signs of excess at its Hotel George party. No ice sculpture, no chocolate tower. “We used to have a three-piece jazz band playing in the background, but we eliminated that as well,” Herson noted.

Background music, though, wouldn’t likely pose a problem, the experts say. “If it’s someone you can buy a ticket to see at the Black Cat or the 930 Club and they’re playing a full set, you may have a problem,” Minor said.

Caterers, like lobbyists, are well-briefed on the rules. An official with Occasions Caterers noted that picks and skewers are acceptable eating implements, while forks, knives and spoons are not. Some hors d’oeuvres popular with revelers include golden beets with mascarpone and snow peas stuffed with ricotta.

It’s worth noting that alcoholic beverages, even top shelf, may flow freely.

Ethics experts recommend that lobbying groups hosting receptions, as well as invited members and staff, touch base with the ethics committees if there are any concerns.

That’s what the video game lobby did in preparing for its annual holiday party, said Dan Hewitt, the group’s vice president of media relations. The Entertainment Software Association is holding its reception at the Rock N Roll Hotel on Thursday. Don’t expect to go home with any games, but you can play them at the party, Hewitt said. As for the food, it will be “bite-sized and mini,” he assured.

While Minor said it isn’t necessary to note compliance on an invitation, Hill guests should read each one carefully. If it says reception, then it’s likely no problem. He similarly advises clients to keep their invite wording simple.

Once at the shindig, government officials should be wary of gift bags, as some items could violate the rules. And look out for full-sized hot dogs or carving stations, which could equal a meal. Mini hotdogs and passed appetizers with roast beef are OK.

One perk of the job, Minor said, is on-the-ground fact-finding.

“I do notice clients watching me check out the food to make sure I haven’t rolled my eyes,” he said. “Ideally, I’m there to enjoy the company of the people and not to worry about whether the food is sufficiently sized.”

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