Seats of Power: A Return to Skybox Lobbying?

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Not long ago, lobbyists regularly entertained lawmakers and their aides in skyboxes at local sports arenas. But after a series of scandals on Capitol Hill, the law was changed to forbid congressional officials from accepting anything of value from lobbyists without repayment -- let alone the best seats in the house.

Now the Washington Redskins are talking up a new twist. Their sales force has given a one-page handout to a potential customer that states that congressional officials could accept a free "Suite Guest Pass" to a skybox as long as they have a ticket for anywhere else in the stadium, including a $25 standing-room-only ticket.

The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, says that such guest passes allow for only a "short visit." It does not define "short visit" or say who would monitor the requirement.

Several ethics experts and top lobbying managers said they would at a minimum advise caution. "This doesn't sound kosher to me," said Jan W. Baran, an ethics expert at the law firm Wiley Rein. He said he thought it could be seen as a "gimmick" in which a guest could "buy a standing-room-only ticket for $25 and then accept from the lobbyist a free guest pass to the suite."

David Donovan, the Redskins' general counsel, said that the document was not legal advice and that it was intended simply to provide information to customers who had asked about the impact of the new lobbying rules. He said the team was merely repeating what it had been told by government ethics offices.

"All we're trying to tell people is what is required to comply with the rules, not how to get around them," Donovan said. Referring to the team's statements about the pass, he said, "The operative words are 'to drop by for a short visit.' "

"If they [lawmakers and staffers] want to stop by for more than a short visit," he added, "they're doing something we're not suggesting."

Redskins spokesman Karl Swanson confirmed that the document had been given to a potential customer. He said the document was used by the team's sales force as "a talk sheet" to provide answers when a customer asked about government ethics rules and their impact on the suites. He said that the sales staff used the document in conversations with customers fewer than 10 times in the past year and a half.

Headlined "Government Ethics Rules re: Suite Tickets," the document notes that "Government officials/employees can accept invitations to your Suite" through "Suite Guest Passes."

"These passes allow recipients who already have a ticket to the game to drop by an Executive Level Suite for a short visit," the document reads.

"If you are a lobbyist (or your company employs lobbyists), a House/Senate employee to whom you give a game ticket and a Suite Guest Pass would be required to reimburse for the face value of the game ticket and could accept the Suite Guest Pass," the document says. "If you are not a lobbyist, then a House/Senate employee can accept a game ticket valued at less than $50 and a Suite Guest Pass for free."

The next paragraph states: "Limited View/standing room only Tickets: These tickets cost $25. A government employee who bought such a ticket from the Redskins could accept a Suite Guest Pass (referenced above) from you to visit your suite without reimbursing you."

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