Hill Gift Limits Often Exceeded, Lobbyists' Records Show
Sunday, January 1, 2006
More than 80 lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides are listed as having accepted entertainment from lobbyists for BellSouth Corp. at levels that appear to exceed congressional gift limits, according to a document produced by the company's Washington office.
The document, which was obtained from an employee of the telecommunications firm who said she was disturbed by the pattern, sheds light on one of the capital's worst-kept secrets: Congressional gift restrictions are frequently ignored.
The BellSouth records show that the firm's lobbyists were regularly out on the town hosting people they are paid to influence with drinks and dinner at Washington's priciest restaurants -- from Charlie Palmer Steak to the Capital Grille. Some of the guests feasted so often and so well that they apparently toted up bills several times as large as they are allowed to accept.
The experience is not isolated. "The gift rules have been broken steadily for a long time despite strong efforts by corporations to stay within the limits," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, an education group for lobbyists. Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, agreed: "If you call that an abuse, it probably is the biggest one."
The BellSouth document -- a 21-page spreadsheet -- is color-coded to highlight which lawmakers and staff members may have tripped the gift limits because of spending by the company's lobbyists. More than a dozen lawmakers and six dozen congressional aides are flagged. Under House and Senate rules, lawmakers and their staff members cannot accept anything valued at more than $49.99 at a single time -- or, from the same source, more than an accumulated $99.99 over the course of a calendar year.
BellSouth, a substantial player on K Street with a 32-person office, said in a statement that it was not culpable if lawmakers or their aides accepted more from its lobbyists than the rules allow. Gift regulations "govern the conduct of Members and staff and do not apply to companies such as BellSouth," it said. Still, the company said, the document was created "to assist our employees' understanding of congressional gift rules and to increase their awareness of expenditures associated with members and staff that may fall under those rules."
The document was produced after a draft internal audit prepared in June 2004 warned: "BellSouth D.C. employee expenses related to lobbying activities are not always adequately controlled. Exceeding allowable gift and gratuity limits set forth in federal laws and regulations could lead to unfavorable publicity related to BellSouth D.C.'s lobbying efforts."
The Post obtained the document and some backup materials from Vicki A. Taylor, a BellSouth clerical worker who said she was outraged by the quantity of expenses that appeared to violate congressional rules as well as BellSouth expense policies. "It's obscene. It's wrong," she said. "This is run-of-the-mill. It's routine. And they think nothing of it."
After the Post contacted BellSouth and congressional officials listed in the document, one of the company's eight D.C. lobbyists, Troup Coronado, reimbursed BellSouth $1,093 for entertainment expenses he said were personal rather than lobbying-related this year for Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.), Rep. Silverstre Reyes (D-Tex.) and Cindy Jimenez, adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey warned that the spreadsheet should not be used to finger specific gift-limit violators because Congress's rule has several exceptions and BellSouth's data are imprecise. For example, at Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant in May BellSouth's document shows that 12 Florida lawmakers and eight staffers attended a dinner that ran $54.80 a head, an amount that slightly exceeds the gift limit. McCloskey noted, however, that taxes and tip are included in the overall tab but are not counted for gift-rule purposes.
On the other hand, two of the lawmakers listed, Republican Reps. Mark Foley and John L. Mica, and Mica's wife, stopped by but did not stay to eat, spokesmen said. One of the aides, Jeff Cohen, chief of staff for Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), said he didn't attend the event at all. Taken together, those changes would probably keep the per-person cost high enough to break the limits even excluding tax and tip.
Aides to some of Capitol Hill's most prominent lawmakers are recorded on the spreadsheet as having had multiple meals that went above the annual limits. These include Brian Gaston, chief of staff to acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.); Jim Hippe, legislative director to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.); and Jimenez. Gaston called his listing inaccurate, and Hippe could not be reached. A spokeswoman for Frist said, "We will review this situation to make sure we are in compliance."