Wednesday, June 7, 2006

THE MOST disturbing thing isn't that Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accepted free ringside tickets to Las Vegas boxing matches, worth between several hundred and several thousand dollars each. It's that even when pressed the senator didn't see anything wrong with taking the freebies at the same time he was pushing federal legislation to oversee the industry. "I would be criticized if I didn't go," he said after the Associated Press broke the story. "It's just like going to an Ohio State football game, an Arizona State football game -- in Nevada, boxing is it."

Senate rules, which normally limit gifts to $50, don't bar more valuable presents from state and local governments, and the tickets in this case came from the Nevada Athletic Commission, a state agency. The rules don't even require that such gifts be disclosed, which reflects a problem with the rules, not with Mr. Reid's behavior.

Nor was Mr. Reid doing the athletic commission's bidding; to the contrary, he was pushing legislation it opposed, and there's no indication that he changed his position after attending the fights.

But commission officials were eager for an opportunity to lobby the senator -- and where better than ringside? This is the point of rules on gifts: It's unseemly for lawmakers to be accepting benefits from those who are trying to influence them on legislation. The Senate Ethics Manual cautions that lawmakers "should be wary of accepting any gift where it appears that the gift is motivated by a desire to reward, influence, or elicit favorable official action."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who teamed up with Mr. Reid on the boxing legislation, got that point. As reported by the AP's John Solomon, Mr. McCain joined Mr. Reid at a championship fight in 2004 but paid $3,400 for tickets for himself and his wife. Mr. Reid explained the difference this way: "He came here to watch the fight, I came here to work for the state of Nevada and to watch the fight."

Mr. Reid first declared that he would continue to take free tickets, then reversed course the next day "to avoid even the faintest appearance of impropriety." Maybe he got an inkling: It's this culture of entitlement that offends ordinary Americans -- who don't get free ringside seats and who have to settle for pay-per-view.

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