A photograph accompanying a Federal Page story yesterday on a Capitol Police probe of ethical questions raised by the practice of paying place-holders to wait in line for Capitol Hill hearings depicted people standing in line outside the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room in 1991. (Published 5/28/94)

Perhaps only in Washington could waiting in line become a cutthroat business, complete with a police investigation.

But even here, this seems weird: a Capitol Police probe into lobbyists hiring surrogates to hold their places in lines outside crowded congressional hearings.

The practice of "line-standing" has grown over the past several years as high-priced lawyers and lobbyists found that instead of showing up at 6 a.m. to wait in line for a hearing, they could hire bicycle couriers or college students to do it for them.

Rates range from $22 to about $40 an hour; the place-holders get about half, with the other half going to the courier or "line-standing" services that employ them.

Chalk it up to good old capitalism: A need emerges, and an entrepreneur fills it. Business has been booming this year with hearings on hot topics that draw capacity crowds, such as health reform and telecommunications. Invariably, those who don't come early are left standing outside.

But where there's money to be made, competition can drive people to cut ethical corners.

The Capitol Police have been interviewing witnesses for several weeks to determine whether some have gained unfair advantage by hiring insiders -- congressional employees -- to get in line early, before Hill office buildings are opened to the public.

It could be a violation of congressional ethics rules for an employee to use an official identification card to gain access to an office building for the purpose of earning outside income. House rules, for example, ban outside work "if the employment is gained through the improper use of {an employee's} official position."

The criminal investigation was first reported yesterday in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

Chris Van Horn, owner of the CVK Group, which provides place-holding services to lobbyists and law firms, said his company had complained to police that his people often had entered office buildings when they open at 7 a.m. only to find as many as 10 people in line ahead of them.

"The whole point is to get into the hearing room, and there is limited space. Having those first 10 or 15 spots in line, those are definitely choice spots, and clients will go with the service that will get them a better space... . I've lost business."