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Ethics experts suggest former Senate aide Doug Hampton’s indictment last week over allegations that he violated Congressional “revolving door” rules will serve as a stark reminder on Capitol Hill and K Street that lobbying rules carry real penalties.
A federal jury indicted Hampton last week on charges that he broke conflict-of-interest laws because he contacted his former boss, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), in violation of the chamber’s one-year lobbying ban for former aides.
Although it is not the first time the Justice Department pursued suspected violations of the law — both then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and his former chief of staff Neil Volz pled guilty to conspiracy to violate Volz’s one-year lobbying ban — attorneys knowledgeable with the ethics process said the indictment will likely reverberate on Capitol Hill.
“It seems as though periodically it’s required on Capitol Hill that every few years there be a somewhat seismic event that grabs everybody by the lapels and tells them these rules are real and you have to follow them. ... this is a cleansing process that repeats itself over and over again,” said one attorney who regularly represents Members and aides.
According to the indictment released Thursday, Hampton is charged with violating rules that prohibit Senate aides from lobbying for one year after leaving their post.
After quitting Ensign’s office, Hampton became a consultant for two Las Vegas-based companies, and he has said that Ensign helped him to find lobbying clients.
However, the indictment does not name Ensign, and the Nevada Senator’s attorney announced in December that the Justice Department declined to pursue allegations against Ensign.
Ensign acknowledged in 2009 that he had an affair with Hampton’s wife, Cynthia, who was a campaign aide.
Hampton’s arraignment is scheduled for Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Although Hampton’s saga has garnered attention for its more salacious details, his indictment still puts a spotlight on post-employment rules.
“I do not think that the significance of this is lost,” the attorney said.
Under ethics and lobbying reform rules enacted in 2007, both Senate and House aides face similar prohibitions from lobbying their former employers for one year. Senior House aides cannot contact their former employers or offices, while Senate aides are barred from lobbying the entire chamber during that time.
Stan Brand, a defense attorney and former House general counsel, noted that the lobbying ban has become “a standard feature when the DOJ pursues public corruption cases.
“Obviously the department is relying on this now routinely where they think it’s appropriate,” Brand said. “It should put everybody on notice.”
He added: “It’s another arrow in [the DOJ’s] quiver, and it’s a lot easier to prove than bribery with all the problems they’ve experienced using that statute both legally and tactically. And it’s a felony, so it’s just as good from their standpoint.”
Brett Kappel, an attorney at the firm Arent Fox, expressed doubt that Hampton’s indictment would prompt hand-wringing among people subject to the lobbying ban, but he said it could create a chilling effect among would-be informants.
“The people who will be wringing their hands are whistle-blowers who know about illegal activity because they were involved in it — they now have a very powerful incentive not to come forward unless and until they get immunity from the Justice Department,” Kappel said.
Still, several ethics attorneys suggested that there are not widespread violations of the revolving-door rules on the Hill.
“I think there’s a lot of people who leave and exercise good-faith judgment in complying with it. ... Most people are aware of it and try to follow it,” Brand said.
Both the House and Senate maintain public databases listing former Members and aides, along with the active dates of their lobbying bans.
In addition, both chambers’ ethics committees conduct periodic ethics briefings for staff, including details on the post-employment restrictions, and issue annual reminders on the rules.
Even if the Hampton saga is unusual by K Street standards, lobbyists said they are mindful of their revolving-door restrictions and that violations carry criminal penalties.
“We take it very seriously; the rules are clear,” said Bob Siggins, the former chief of staff to then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.). Both Siggins and Pomeroy joined the lobbying and law firm Alston & Bird after Pomeroy lost in the 2010 midterm elections.
Pomeroy is under a one-year ban from lobbying Congress, but Siggins faces no restrictions since he would have been forbidden only from lobbying Pomeroy’s Congressional office.
Still, Siggins said he wanted to make sure he was completely clear on the rules, so he sat down with advisers on the House Ethics Committee before he checked out of the Capitol.
“I wanted to hear from them that there wasn’t some little thing that I didn’t remember,” he said.
Pomeroy and others subject to a ban, Siggins added, are cautious. “There’s no wink and a nod. We know the penalties,” he said.
Kathryn Lehman, a top GOP lobbyist at Holland & Knight, has long been free of her cooling-off period. But her shop has made several hires this year and must work around new lobbyists’ restrictions, she said.
In one example, the firm’s new senior policy adviser, Kerry Feehery, is prohibited from lobbying the Senate.
“It’s almost a cultural issue because not only does the person who’s under the ban need to be aware, but really everybody else that you’re working with needs to be aware,” Lehman said. “People will ask Kerry to do stuff, and she’ll have to say or I’ll have to say, ‘She can’t do that.’ You don’t want to embarrass yourself, your firm or the people you used to work for.”
Lehman said one year seems like the appropriate ban, but that didn’t stop her from celebrating when her own cooling-off period ended.
“I had a happy hour the day my lobbying ban was up,” she said.