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For the past decade, the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education & Leadership Institute has sponsored an annual policy conference in Mississippi to discuss everything from health care to clean energy and infrastructure.
But the event also has corporate sponsorships, leading to a thorny ethics question that is increasingly difficult to answer: What does it mean for a third party to sponsor an event that includes Members of Congress?
Members of Congress are not allowed to accept travel from private entities but are allowed to take trips sponsored by nonprofit groups.
In 2008 and 2009, a dozen members of the CBC filed forms with the House ethics committee seeking approval of their travel to the institutes annual policy conference in Tunica, Miss. Each Member checked a box on the form certifying that the institute would be paying for the trip, and the trip sponsor has not accepted from any other source funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip.
But in 2008 and 2009, the institute had collected thousands of dollars from corporate sponsors of the event, and a copy of the 2008 agenda attached to one Members financial disclosure form lists a separate corporate sponsor for every aspect of the conference. Toyota North America is listed as the sponsor of a roundtable on advanced technology vehicles; Lockheed Martin is listed as the sponsor of an award ceremony and concert featuring R&B stalwarts Kool & the Gang; the International Longshoremens Association is listed as the sponsor of the Bennie G. Thompson Sporting Clays Challenge, a target shooting event.
The Mississippi Democrat is the chairman of the institute, and the event takes place at a resort and casino in his Congressional district.
William Kirk, an institute board member and organizer of the Tunica event, said the group consulted carefully with the ethics panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, about the conference and was given the green light because none of the sponsors had any control over the agenda or the events. The 2008 agenda listing individual sponsorships does not mean that sponsors paid for or organized those sessions, Kirk said.
The rules dont prohibit a nonprofit from receiving contributions from folks, Kirk said. For the purposes of the ethics rules, What they are getting at is the sponsor of the event has to be the one who sets the agenda. While the CBC institute sold sponsorships to companies for the event, those sponsorships conferred upon the donors only the right to attend the event and participate in the recreational and social activities scheduled around the event. They were offered no control over the agenda and no opportunity to speak during the proceedings.
The House rules have evolved, Kirk said in an interview. When you use that term sponsor, it causes confusion. ... In 2007 and 2008, nobody thought the term sponsor was significant. All we were doing was trying to find ways for people who were significant contributors to the institute to be acknowledged.
Several sponsors contacted by Roll Call said their sponsorship was a general donation to the CBC institute and attendance at the conference, but they did not specifically designate the funds for any purpose.