By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
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."
Through a Pelosi spokeswoman, Jimenez said she was a personal friend of Coronado, the BellSouth lobbyist who feted her most often, and is not in danger of exceeding the official limits. Still, the spokeswoman said Pelosi's office was reviewing the Jimenez entries, which included 17 events between March and November that totaled $505.
One reason so many people might have breached the rule is that eating and drinking in the capital can be expensive. "In Washington, D.C., there's no such thing as a reasonable restaurant," said Rep. Gonzalez, who contends that the seven meals for $406 attributed to him and guests were listed in error.
The document also gives a glimpse into the ways that lobbyists cement "friendships" with congressional staff members through corporate-paid schmoozing. Tasha Cole, senior adviser to Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), said she met BellSouth lobbyist Lyndon K. Boozer three years ago when she got her current job and now considers him a close friend. She and her circle spend a lot of time socializing with Boozer. Although she said that the entries exaggerate the frequency of their encounters, the BellSouth document says that she and the lobbyist ate together five times in June alone for a total of $172.
The spreadsheet also shows how difficult categorizing such gifts can be. Jim McCray, general counsel to Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), is listed as having been entertained by BellSouth lobbyist Ward White four times between April and October for a total of $102. But McCray is also an officer of Burns's reelection campaign and White a member of Burns's National Finance Steering Committee, and so, according to a Burns spokesman, the encounters might also be counted as business not directly related to Congress and therefore potentially outside of the gift rules.
Such distinctions are rarely parsed. In the main, the gift limit operates on the honor system. The policy is not routinely policed by any agency outside or inside Congress, nor are lobbyists or congressional officials required to disclose the gifts of meals, tickets for sporting events and the like while they are in Washington. "Repeated violations could be handled by the ethics committees but there are no cases that come to mind," said Kenneth A. Gross, an ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
That may soon change. One new lobbying proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would make lobbyists report gifts of more than $20 given to a member of Congress or staffers. Another plan by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) would bar registered lobbyists from giving any gifts to lawmakers or their aides.
Lawmakers and outside observers agree that the more waves created by the scandals instigated by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the more likely an overhaul of lobbying disclosure laws will become.
For now, some lawmakers and their aides flit nightly from one lobbyist-paid event to another and often have trouble keeping account of how much has been expended on their behalf. Michael Sullivan, senior adviser to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) on technology issues, makes many visits with lobbyists for high-tech firms. According to the BellSouth document, he was entertained by the firm's lobbyists 19 times between March and November for a total tab of $629.
Jack Finn, a spokesman for Ensign, said that the tech aide is much in demand around town. "Sully is one of the best-known tech staffers on Capitol Hill. It's not unusual for him to go to two or three events a night and stay maybe an hour, or maybe two or three minutes at each," Finn said. Finn said that Sullivan disagrees with BellSouth's accounting, including one $25.43 dinner at Bobby Van's Steakhouse that Sullivan said he paid for himself.
Still, Finn added, the office is "looking into" the situation and pledges that Sullivan will pay back any amount in excess of the gift limitation.