When the American Medical Association (AMA) invited members of the government's Social Security Advisory Council over to its N Street town house for a "brainstorming" dinner on national health issues April 23, it didn't think it was breaking any laws. Neither did the five members who attended.

But in Washington, there's a rule for practically everything. In this case, it's the "sunshine" rule, and that means the five council members who attended are being asked to pony up $50 each to cover the costs of their food, according to one of the attendees, former social security commissioner Robert Ball.

The sunshine rule requires the council, which is considering long-range health care policy, to hold all meetings in open session. Since the entire council was not invited to the dinner and it was held in private, Health and Human Services General Counsel Michael Astrue warned the situation was questionable and attendance was "inappropriate."

Besides Ball, the council members who attended were Lonnie R. Bristow, an AMA trustee and physician; Theodore Cooper, chairman and chief executive of Upjohn Co.; Philip Briggs, vice chairman of the board of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.; and John T. Dunlop, a Harvard professor and former secretary of labor.

Dunlop reportedly was so angry at the implication that some illicit secret conversations were going on that he threatened to resign from the council, several members said. He declined a request for an interview.

An AMA spokesman said the organization had called the HHS ethics office a few hours before the dinner and had the impression that the dinner could go ahead. But an HHS spokesman said no such approval was given.