FORMER WHITE HOUSE aide Lyn Nofziger was convicted last week of violating the part of the Ethics in Government Act that prohibits high government officials from lobbying their former colleagues within a year of leaving office. He is the first person to be successfully prosecuted under that statute. His lawyers had argued that the law is both unfair and vague. Surprisingly, both the judge and the prosecutor conceded that they're not entirely pleased with the statute either. During the trial, U.S. District Judge Thomas Flannery said that the law is "hardly a model of clarity." Special prosecutor James McKay added that it "could perhaps be improved" and promised to recommend specific changes.
That Mr. Nofziger had communicated with the White House in behalf of his clients, Wedtech Corp., National Marine Engineers and Fairchild Republic, was not in dispute. But he argued that he had no intention to violate the law and that the White House did not have a "direct and substantial" interest in the matters at issue, as the statute requires. He will make these arguments again on appeal. Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation to eliminate these questions in future prosecutions.
Later this month the full Senate is expected to consider revising the ethics law to make it tougher and clearer. It would apply lobbying restrictions not only to an expanded number of officials in the executive branch but also to members of Congress and their staffs. Senior officials -- GS-16s and up and their counterparts in the legislature -- would be prohibited from making any contact with their agencies for a year after leaving. At a still higher level, executive employees could not contact anyone in the executive branch. A third category of federal employees -- the highest level -- and members of Congress would be banned from lobbying anyone in either the executive or legislative branch for a fixed period of time. The law, a criminal statute, would not require the showing of a specific intention to influence. Nor would it be necessary to prove that the contacted agency had a "direct and substantial interest" in the matter at hand.
This would be a very tough law, and it would transform what has become fairly common practice in this town. There is reason to question those who would severely restrict lobbying by former officials of the executive branch while preserving those lucrative options for themselves. Now that criminal convictions for this kind of lobbying are a reality, it is only fair that members of Congress accept a similar discipline. However the rules are altered, they should apply equally to all who make a marketplace asset of a stint in government service.