Honors’ dance of the donations

November 29, 2012

A classic Washington question: How do congresspeople, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries, their staff members and other government worthies all end up attending the Kennedy Center Honors, a black-tie-and-ball-gown gala where tickets sell for as much as $5,500?

How, too, when the Honors are the Kennedy Center’s biggest annual fundraiser and when federal rules prohibit the awarding of excessive “gifts” to federal employees?

The answer, in a word, is “donations.”

Tickets sales for this year’s Honors on Sunday — lauding Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, Led Zeppelin, David Letterman and Natalia Makarova — will raise about $6 million, according to Marie Mattson, the Kennedy Center’s development vice president. And, she says, almost every ticket for the performances in the Opera House and dinner in the grand foyer will be paid for, making the event the center’s single largest fundraiser of the year.

The bulk of tickets to the performance and dinner are reserved for the Kennedy Center’s annual donors. Another block — about 10 percent of the 2,100 Opera House seats — is set aside for CBS, which televises the event each year. Still another block goes to the performers, Honorees and their families. About 300 tickets are sold to the public, starting at $400 each. “These tickets are like hen’s teeth,” Mattson says.

But that doesn’t mean every ticket will be used by the person or company that paid for it.

In a kind of classic Washington two-step, corporations, foundations and individuals who contribute to the Kennedy Center each year buy Honors tickets and then donate some of them back to the institution, creating a pool of giveaways.

The Kennedy Center can then distribute these tickets to the VIPs of its choosing without skirting the “gift” rules.

Although the Kennedy Center is required by the rules to be the final arbiter of who gets what, in practice donors often “request” that they be seated with a special invited someone. The Kennedy Center’s staff members thus act as go-betweens, matching requests with important guests. “We do not identify who specifically donated the tickets, and we ask guests’ permission on dinner seating,” Mattson says.

In effect, however, while the head of, say, a big defense contractor can’t legally hand a golden ticket to the Honors to a member of a congressional committee with sway over military spending, it’s perfectly legit for him to ask the Kennedy Center to seat the distinguished member next to him when dinner is served. The Kennedy Center declined to identify any of the parties that donate Honors tickets with specific requests in mind.

The purchase-and-donate exception to the gift rule is spelled out in the 444-page House Ethics Manual, the bible of clean government practices. The exception requires the host organization to retain “ultimate control of the guest list and the seating arrangements” when fulfilling seating requests from a donor to a government official. (An exception to this exception: Members of Congress are allowed to accept direct invitations from journalists to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner and needn’t wait for the organization that sponsors the dinner to invite them on the journalist’s behalf.)

Despite the blessing of the House Ethics Manual, the Kennedy Center’s ticketing arrangement doesn’t sit well with Melanie Sloan. “I think it comes very close to the line,” says Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group.

“This seems to violate the spirit of the rules, if not the letter,” Sloan says.

Of course, there’s another surefire way for VIPs to get into the Kennedy Center (and no, not “practice”): They can just buy a ticket like everyone else.

READ MORE | Kennedy Center Honors 2012

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Led Zeppelin changed the shape of rock-and-roll

Dustin Hoffman, Hollywood’s unlikely leading man

Spontaneity launched Natalia Makarova’s career

Buddy Guy’s still got the blues

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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