Seeing the Ethics Rules, and Raising an Exception

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Shhhh! Don't tell anyone, but lobby groups are plotting all sorts of ways to get around the new ethics rules.

Lobbyists and their lawyers don't want to talk publicly about these "workarounds," a.k.a. clever cheating. But privately I've collected a few of the likely ways that lobbyists will continue to stay close to lawmakers while not outright breaking the law.

Most of these are still in the planning stages, so consider this an early heads-up.

The new statute bars lobbyists from taking lawmakers on trips. But lobby groups, particularly corporate lobbyists, are checking to see whether they can partner with colleges and nonprofit foundations to provide free travel to lawmakers despite the ban. The rules allow universities and charities greater latitude in providing the benefit.

Along the same lines, lobbyists, who are banned from organizing travel for lawmakers, are thinking about asking their assistants to do it -- an action that would skirt the prohibition.

The new law generally limits "fact-finding" trips by organizations with lobbyists to a single day. That would seem to make it hard for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobby for the nuclear industry, to sponsor its oft-taken trips to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site in Nevada.

Not so. Those trips can still go on, the association says. Although the organization is still double-checking with ethics lawyers in Congress, it is confident that lawmakers and staffers can "travel on Monday, do their tour on Tuesday and travel back on Wednesday," a spokesman said. In other words, not much change.

In order to continue providing meals for lawmakers and their staff members, a few lobbyists are considering inviting their government guests to a happy hour, ordering drinks and chips, and calling the event a reception -- the kind of widely attended party that the rules still allow.

Small fundraisers might also proliferate as a way for lobbyists to provide dinners to lawmakers. A few lobbyists could invite a congressman to a restaurant, hand him checks for his reelection and then pay for the meal. The tab would be permitted as an in-kind contribution to the reelection effort.

Then there's the perfect storm of workarounds: the out-of-town fundraiser. A corporate political action committee could underwrite a lawmaker's travel to a lovely spot as long as a fundraising event is held there. That sort of thing already happens, of course, but it will probably occur a lot more, because campaign-related events are covered by a separate set of laws than those that deal with lobbying.

Happy trails!

A High-Flying Fly-In

Life is a gamble, of course, and this week so is lobbying. Literally.

Some of the world's top professional poker players are heading to Capitol Hill today and tomorrow to ask lawmakers to exempt poker playing (and other "games of skill") from a new law that prohibits credit card companies from processing online wagers.

These kinds of events -- called fly-ins -- usually feature crowds of dour business executives in bad suits and name tags. But in this case, the lobbyists-for-a-day are TV-star gazillionaires.

Celebrity gamblers such as Howard Lederer and his sister Annie Duke, Barry Greenstein (an Internet entrepreneur who gives his poker earnings to charity), and the aptly named Chris Moneymaker will schmooze members of the House Judiciary and House Financial Services committees. Their visits are part of a nontraditional, high-profile effort led by the Poker Players Alliance, whose chairman is former senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.).

As is common for such gatherings, the alliance will sponsor a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building tonight. But it's also going highbrow. A forum titled "Poker: Public Policy, Politics, Skill and the Future of an American Tradition" is scheduled in the same building tomorrow and will include a Harvard Law professor.

But the more things change . . . As you'd expect from well-heeled poker players, campaign cash has flowed. A sponsor of the legislation that the alliance is here to push, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), received more than $50,000 in donations from gambling-related individuals during a fundraiser in July that was held during the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

That sort of thing is certain to improve the lobbyists' odds.

Hire of the Week

Julie A. Rochman is moving from blowing up legislation to blowing up buildings.

Rochman, 45, is a senior vice president with Glover Park Group, an all-Democratic lobbying and public relations firm. Before that she worked for the American Insurance Association, one of Washington's most potent lobbies.

She was recently named chief executive of the Institute for Business & Home Safety, the insurance-backed organization that tests structures under extreme conditions to see how well they hold up. It pelts houses with hail and re-creates other types of disasters for the purpose of reducing structural risk.

"We will test full-scale houses and commercial structures; we'll blow them up," she said with a smile.

The group's mission is not unlike that of another group Rochman once worked for. From November 1996 until late 2000, she was vice president of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is best known for crashing cars -- as a way to make them safer, of course. "I loved crashing cars, I'm going to love crashing buildings," she said. "It's destruction for the public good."

At the Institute for Business & Home Safety, which is located in Tampa, Rochman will succeed Harvey G. Rylan, who is retiring.

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