Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) just learned an important lesson for an ethically upstanding congressman: It’s not enough to avoid envelopes full of cash and crooked backroom deals. You also have to think twice about sharing your love of video games.
The House Ethics Committee closed a probe Friday into Polis, but not until after the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated him and found “substantial reason to believe” that he violated federal law and House rules.
The probe concerned two appearances Polis made that could be perceived as promoting private businesses. One was a short video produced by the creators of “League of Legends,” an online video game, in which Polis — a proud video gamer — discussed his love of video games, his life as a congressman and his legislative work on behalf of the gaming community. The other was a makeover sponsored by a Boulder menswear designer, Ninox, after GQ declared in 2014 that Polis — who appeared on the House floor in a purple polo shirt and silver clip-on bow tie — had the “worst Congressional style ever.”
Polis did not gain any direct benefit from the appearances; he purchased the clothes from the makeover out of his own pocket, for instance. But in both cases, the Office of Congressional Ethics — an entity separate from the House Ethics Committee that has the power to investigate allegations and recommend further action — concluded after a four-month investigation that Polis could be perceived to be endorsing those products and, in the course of doing so, may have improperly used taxpayer resources and staff time. Notably, one of the interviews he did for the League of Legends video was conducted in his Capitol Hill office, and it included scenes of him walking around the Capitol complex.
The crux of the matter, as the OCE saw it, was that Ninox and the creator of League of Legends are both for-profit firms that saw a commercial benefit from Polis’s participation in their marketing. Ninox, for instance, briefly featured an “$89 Polis Special” on sunglasses and featured him on its website as a “Boulder Icon.” The video game company Riot Games included the Polis video in a marketing campaign aimed at building loyalty among League of Legends players. And according to the OCE report, his staffers did not ask many questions about how the appearances would be used by those companies.
Polis saw them differently — as a routine interactions aimed at building bridges to his constituents and the public at large. The OCE referral, his lawyers said, “relies on a bizarre and sweeping interpretation of the rules that would curtail how Members routinely interact with constituents, businesses in their districts, and media companies.”
The makeover and the video, the lawyers argued, were “not unlike a host of common and legitimate constituency outreach and press functions, such as tweeting about Taylor Swift, posting about owning an AR-15, congratulating a NASCAR driver in a video appearing on a speedway’s website, retweeting a photo from an official meeting with the retailer Home Depot, or telling the NHL Network in an interview that their network is a ‘godsend.’ ” (Yes, members of Congress have done all of those things.)
The Ethics Committee — the only body that can actually proceed with sanctions against House members — agreed with Polis.
“While it does appear that both the Riot Games video and the Ninox clothing event were intended, at least in part, to promote the businesses, this is true in virtually every instance in which a business participates in or arranges an event with a Member,” the committee said in its report issued Monday, adding that the video and makeover “also had clear and substantial non-commercial, representational purposes” and that Polis’s office had no reason to believe that the video and the makeover “would serve as any advertisement for the respective companies, or that Representative Polis’ image would be used to promote sales of any particular product.”
The question remains: Where is the line between Polis strutting around in a local clothier’s shades and another congressman, say, openly promoting a campaign supporter’s real estate deal?
The Ethics Committee urged House members to proceed with care, reminding them that they “should take care when participating in activities with outside entities” and “contact the Committee with any questions they may have, and to exercise caution to avoid any appearance of an improper official endorsement or use of official resources for a commercial purpose.”
Said Polis in a statement, “I’m glad the Ethics Committee promptly and unanimously dismissed this matter and found no violation. The activities — an interview I did for a website popular with gamers and a tongue-in-cheek press event lampooning my infamous fashion sense — reflect my ongoing efforts to creatively reach constituents where they are in a relevant manner.”