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According to a report by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the act was to provide a uniform set of standards and procedures for the acceptance of gifts and decorations offered by foreign governments to U.S. government employees. The report stated that the tender of gifts from foreign governments was a well-established practice that predated the foundation of the United States. According to the report, because gifts from foreign governments signify that the recipient has in some small measure contributed to more amicable relations with the foreign government, refusal could be regarded as an insult, thereby negating the very purpose for which the gift is intended.
The House gift rules thereafter incorporated an exception to the gift ban explicitly allowing Members and staffers to accept gifts received in accordance with the act. One type of gift permitted by the act, and the one that applies here, is a gift of minimal value from a foreign government that is tendered and received as a souvenir or mark of courtesy.
For starters, you might be thinking that the check for dinner at many of D.C.s best restaurants could hardly qualify as something of minimal value. At some restaurants these days, a steak can cost upward of $40, and a couple cocktails can double that tab.
But, for purposes of the act, minimal value, as it turns out, is not quite as minimal as you might think. While minimal value meant less than $50 when the act was passed, the amount is now redefined every three years to reflect changes in the consumer price index. For purposes of the act, minimal value currently means less than $335.
An additional question is whether a dinner during which your friend discusses legislation with a Member or staffer counts as a gift that is tendered and received as a souvenir or a mark of courtesy. The House ethics committee appears to have answered that question affirmatively. In fact, the manual includes an illustrative example that is right on point. In the example, an embassy official invites a staff member to lunch at a local restaurant to discuss pending legislation concerning his country. The manual states that the staff member may accept the invitation under the minimal value provision of the act.
Note, however, that the answer would be different if your friend were a registered lobbyist or a registered foreign agent. The Ethics Manual states that meals from such lobbyists or agents are not permitted by the act because they are not properly deemed as having been tendered as a souvenir or mark of courtesy. Put another way, under the House interpretation of the exception, embassy officials are being courteous when they host dinners but registered lobbyists and agents are not. You need thick skin to be a lobbyist these days.
C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods LLP. Click here to submit questions. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship.