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Ethics Clarifies Maze of Gift Rules

The memo also offers further explanation of the rules, such as one allowing Members and staff to still go to events with lobbyists if they are “widely attended” gatherings. The panel defines such an event as one where at least 25 people are expected to attend, there are a “range of persons” interested in the matter, the invite list is not limited to “Members, officers, or employees of the Congress” and the event is reasonably related to a Member or staffer’s official duties.

Questions on the new rules — and concerns about unintentionally breaking them — appear to have more lobbyists and organizations disengaging from their old practices rather than trying to figure out how to play by the new rules.

“I think most people are definitely cutting off their activities,” observed Wright Andrews of Butera & Andrews, who used to head up the American League of Lobbyists. “But what all of this has done has continued to drive people to the fundraising process.”

The new gift rules do not apply to Members or aides when they attend political events, such as fundraisers or campaign events. “Members and staff may continue to accept free attendance at political events under this provision, even when lobbyists will attend the event or are involved in, or such individuals are employed by, the political organization,” the ethics panel memo states.

“I think the net effect of the rules definitely has been to limit dramatically the social interchange [with lobbyists] in the sense of the meals and activities. That’s just gone except for fundraising,” Andrews said, explaining that many lobbyists would like to see a de minimis exemption so not all meals with lobbyists were verboten. Andrews added, however, that the current climate is not in favor of lobbyists and the rules are not going to change anytime soon.

“I don’t think [lobbyists] should be able to go on extended junkets or anything like that or be able to give people $100 seats to a ball game, but some type of minimal amounts for meals or other activities, that would be a lot better,” he said. “But the people outside the Beltway don’t understand that. It’s got to go through this cycle and we’ll see what happens.”

Tom Susman, a partner and lobbyist with Ropes & Gray, offered a similar assessment. “I’ve been part of this town for a long time. I think most Members and lobbyists aren’t corrupt and our social fabric is built around politics and government, just like the social fabric in Los Angeles is built around Hollywood and movies, and to say that you can’t socialize easily tends to put a crimp in that social fabric,” he said. “When a lobbyist picks up a tab at lunch I don’t automatically think it’s nefarious.”

The ethics committee also issued a notice to Members and staff that the adoption of a May 24 Rules change amended the current rules to now allow attendance at charitable events. The new rules unintentionally had included such events as part of the ban, because many charitable organizations also employ lobbyists.

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