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Rocking the House Comes at a Cost for Lawmakers, Staff

Free Concert Tickets Called an Ethics Violation

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Mary Ann Akers (a.ka. "The Sleuth") reports on the party scene in Denver. Video by Emily Freifeld/washingtonpost.com
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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.

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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.


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