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Getting Around Rules on Lobbying

Most of the 40 lawmakers dining on red snapper ceviche and beef tenderloin at the recent Hispanic Caucus Institute gala at the Washington Convention Center got their tickets from corporations, said Paul Brathwaite, a principal with the Podesta Group lobbying firm.

Brathwaite said about a dozen of Podesta's corporate clients bought tables of 10 for $5,000 to $25,000 for the Hispanic dinner and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation gala over the past three weeks. The companies then gave the tickets back to the foundations -- along with lists of lawmakers and staff members they wanted to invite. Some lawmakers did buy their own tickets, Brathwaite said, but many did not.

The rules require that charity sponsors do the inviting and decide who sits where. But "at the end of the night, everyone is happy," said Hispanic Caucus Institute spokesman Scott Gunderson Rosa.

"The corporate folks want us at their tables, of course," said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who sat at a Fannie Mae-sponsored table at the Hispanic dinner.

Another provision of the new ethics law bans House members from flying on corporate jets. But senators, including the half-dozen presidential candidates among them, can still do so. Previously they were required to reimburse plane owners the equivalent of a first-class ticket, but now they must pay charter rates, which can increase travel costs tenfold.

The Senate ethics committee decided not to enforce that rule for at least 60 days after it took effect Sept. 14, citing "the lack of experience in many offices in determining 'charter rates.' "

The decision surprised some Senate staffers, Mitchell said, one of whom e-mailed her to say, "Welcome to the world of skirting around the rules we pass."

"Breathtaking. . . . In my view, they're not complying with the plain language of the law," Mitchell said. "I think it should be easier for members of Congress to travel, not harder. But what I don't appreciate as a citizen is Congress passing something but then interpreting it so it doesn't mean what the law clearly says."

The law has dragged into view several such perks that members long enjoyed but didn't reveal -- until they sought exemptions to the new rules.

Lawmakers for years have booked several flights for a day when they plan to leave town. When they finish work, they take the most convenient flight and cancel the rest without paying fees, a privilege denied others. But after the new law passed, some airlines stopped the practice, worried that it violates the gift ban.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) appealed to the Senate ethics committee to allow multiple bookings. Then Reid and McConnell added language to the defense bill that, if it passes, would extend the perk to staffers, too.

New bans on corporate-paid fun could hit hardest at the 2008 presidential nominating conventions. The law prohibits parties honoring a lawmaker on convention days; some lobbyists say the wording means such parties before or after those days are okay. House and Senate members have asked the ethics committees for guidance.

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