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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."

The document concludes with a caveat in small print at the bottom of the page: "The foregoing is provided for informational purposes only. The Washington Redskins cannot provide you with legal advice. Please consult your legal advisor with respect to these rules or their application to your own situation, or call one of the government ethics offices." It then lists the two congressional ethics committees and the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and their phone numbers.

Donovan told The Post that the team had cleared its approach with government ethics officials. After being contacted by The Post, he said, the Redskins again telephoned the Office of Government Ethics and confirmed that a "short visit" was not improper. A spokesman for the office declined to comment, citing its policy to not talk to the press for publication.

Some of the capital's top ethics experts, who regularly counsel lawmakers and corporations, are not convinced that a free pass to a skybox, even if only for a short visit, is acceptable under the new law for congressional officials. "The pass being offered is a benefit by definition, and it comes under the gift rule, whether the stay is long or short," said Robert Bauer, chairman of the political law group of the law firm Perkins Coie. "It may be a larger or smaller gift, but it certainly would seem to be a gift all the same. So I would think hard before accepting the offer."

Kenneth A. Gross, a lobbying law expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said the pass cannot be considered free for the purposes of the lobbying law. "It is difficult to say that a suite pass has no value, and it would have to be dealt with under the ethics rules," he said. "I don't know what kind of valuation you can put on it -- maybe the highest ticket price in the arena -- but it's not free."

Top lobbying managers in Washington also said they would steer clear of the free passes. Asked if he would use them to entertain congressional aides, J. Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & Jensen, said, "absolutely not." Joel Jankowsky, who heads the lobbying practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said he would be "wary."

The ethics law, enacted last year, stiffened the rules governing gifts to lawmakers and their staffers. Lobbyists and entities that employ lobbyists are generally prohibited from giving anything of value to members of Congress and their aides. Organizations that do not lobby can give to these same people benefits worth less than $50, but no more.

In addition, penalties for violations of the lobbying laws were stiffened. Companies, trade associations and unions must certify under oath twice a year to the government that they have made no improper gifts. Making a false certification would potentially subject violators to both civil and criminal penalties, including up to five years' imprisonment.

The new ethics rules were brought about partly in reaction to abuses by the now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Before his downfall in 2004, Abramoff spent about $1 million annually in funds largely provided by his clients to lease four skyboxes -- two at FedEx Field and one each at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and what is now the Verizon Center. He kept them filled with lawmakers, staffers and their guests, part of a multimillion-dollar congressional care-and-feeding project that came under heavy criticism by colleagues and prosecutors. Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials in 2006.

FedEx Field, the Redskins' stadium in Maryland, has about 250 skybox suites. The suites, which are enclosed and heated and have excellent views of the playing field, offer many amenities, including televisions, comfortable chairs and private bathrooms, and they often have food and drink delivered. By contrast, parts of the standing-room-only section have an obscured view of the field, although televisions allow patrons to see the game, Swanson said.

Baran said anyone visiting a suite from the standing-room-only section would surely be tempted to stay a while. As for the team's short-stay exception, he added, "Who will oversee this, the Redskins' police?"

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