By Matthew Mosk and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
DENVER, Aug. 26 -- House staff members who had been planning on free entry to a much-anticipated Kanye West concert here sponsored by the Recording Industry Association of America and the One Campaign received an unwelcome message on Monday: The House ethics committee had concluded that a free ticket was akin to a gift, and was therefore illegal.
If staff members want to go to the concert on Wednesday night, they'll have to pony up $90.
Because of new ethics rules passed by Congress last year, most Washington lobbyists, members of Congress and Capitol Hill aides knew even before they flew here that they would be facing a tangle of new, confusing and at times contradictory regulations dictating permissible behavior at a national party convention. But those attending parties and receptions here this week have discovered that rules that sound sensible during debates on Capitol Hill can be much harder to sort out when put into practice.
"You can still have parties, just like at past conventions, but you need to talk to a lawyer to make sure you're not putting your donors, your sponsors, your guests -- members of Congress and staff -- in an ethical quandary," said Jason Torchinsky, a Republican lawyer advising both lawmakers and lobbying party hosts on the rules at the GOP convention in Minnesota next week.
A case in point is the West event, which is expected to draw 2,500 people to celebrate the One Campaign, an effort to end global poverty backed by a number of major recording artists. (West is one of many performers who will appear.)
When the recording industry group e-mailed invitations to the event, the association's lawyers were still awaiting word from House and Senate ethics committees about whether admission for lawmakers and their staffs could be free. The Senate panel determined that it would be fine -- that this was "a widely attended event," a legal exception to prevent members from having to pay if lots of regular folks were going to attend at no charge.
But on Monday, the industry group sent an e-mail to House lawmakers and their staffs to alert them that their chamber's ethics panel reached a different conclusion -- that a free ticket was akin to a gift, and was therefore illegal.
"The relevant ethics committees have advised us of their decision and we have informed all staff of that," said Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the record industry's association. "It's up to each individual staff member to decide their attendance. For those who come, it will be an informative and exciting event."
Some lawyers say the recording industry is in a bind. The association's staff members set up shop last week at a Starbucks three blocks from the House office buildings so they could distribute concert tickets to House and Senate aides, meaning potentially hundreds of House members and aides already have free tickets.
At a minimum, ethics lawyers said the industry will have to post signs warning House aides that they must pay the $90 fee and set up a booth to collect the money, or else the industry could face criminal charges from the Justice Department for knowingly giving illegal gifts to congressional staff members.
"If they undertake reasonable good-faith efforts to make sure every House staffer pays, they'll likely be okay," said Robert Walker, a former chief counsel of the House and Senate ethics committees.
The new ethics rules were enacted last year in response to the scandal over lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and more broadly as a reaction to the loose restrictions on the way lobbyists could wine and dine members of Congress and their staffs. During the 2004 party conventions, lobbying firms hosted star-studded parties at the Cartier Mansion in New York and the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they sponsored concerts at Rockefeller Center and Planet Hollywood.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), sponsor of a provision banning convention events honoring senators, told his colleagues at the time that he was appalled by what he viewed as a perverse "competition over who can throw the most lavish, the most over-the-top, the most excessive party in honor of a powerful member of Congress."
Due to strict new gift rules, members of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative House Democrats had to pay to attend their own party Sunday night. While everyone else attended Blue Night in Denver -- featuring an open bar and a show by pop rocker KT Tunstall -- House members and aides had to pay $22. Reps. Allen Boyd (Fla.), Melissa Bean (Ill.), and John Tanner (Tenn.) wrote checks so they had proof of payment. Senators and Senate staffers paid nothing.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) strongly backed the ethics measures and now says a little confusion is a small price to pay for reform.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it has created much more separation between lobbyists on the one hand and policymakers on the other," Van Hollen said, adding that extensive efforts were made to educate lawmakers about the new rules.
For lawmakers and staff members, though, the convention has left navigational challenges. Fear of crossing ethical lines prompted some special interest groups to replace receptions with charitable fundraisers, such as the benefit for rebuilding New Orleans that was hosted by Oxfam and the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call on Monday night. Charity events have the widest legal exemptions.
In other cases, event sponsors are placing warnings on their invitations. An invite to a Beach Boys concert in Minneapolis, hosted by AT&T and others, advised members of the House and their staffs to pay $25 for the musical portion of the evening.
"We came here to nominate a president and have a good time," said Libby Greer, chief of staff to Boyd who has decided to swallow the cost of the West ticket. "A Kanye show counts toward the latter, and the fact that I have to drop $90 is not something I'm going to let blow my good time. If Kanye West came to the Verizon Center, I'd have to buy a ticket to see him there, too; same rules apply."
House aides are allowed to attend events "related to the performance of their official duties," the House ethics committee explained in a May 20 memo. "This provision generally does not allow free attendance at entertainment or recreational events such as shows or sporting events."
Ethics lawyers said this makes it difficult to justify how a House staff member could attend just the Beach Boys concert and consider it applicable to "official duties."
"If it's just a concert, it's a gift. If it's just a concert, you've got to pay for it," Torchinsky said.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Mary Ann Akers contributed to this report.