Moreover, much of the guidance regarding who counts as a “sponsor” focuses on the distinction between the organizer of the event, who counts as a sponsor, and mere financial contributors, who do not. The guidance generally appears aimed at preventing mere financial contributors from having a role in invitations, the guest list and seating arrangements. The guidance says the actual “sponsor” must retain “ultimate control” over these items and not allow financial contributors any share of the control. It would not appear to conflict with the spirit of this guidance for an outside lobbyist to send an invitation to a staffer on behalf of the entity that is organizing an event.
Nevertheless, as reasonable as this argument might sound, there is a risk that the Ethics Committee — or even a prosecutor — might reject it. Under a technical reading of the rule, they might contend, only the sponsor itself may make invitations. Period. The House Ethics Manual states that an invitation to a widely attended event is not acceptable if it is “extended by anyone other than the sponsor.” Because you are not an employee of the entity organizing the event, they might argue, you cannot qualify as a “sponsor.”
Beyond this legal risk, there is a practical concern. Staffers might be hesitant to accept an invitation to a widely attended event if the invitation comes from a lobbyist. Some staffers are particularly scrupulous about the ethics rules, erring on the side of caution whenever there is even the slightest possibility or appearance of a violation. Thus, some staffers who would accept an invitation from the organization itself might reject an invitation from an outside lobbyist simply out of an abundance of caution. If the legal risk of a violation does not convince your client that invitations to the event should not come from you, perhaps this practical concern about the effect on attendance would.
This might seem an unsatisfactory result. After all, your client hired you specifically to help promote the event, and the ethics rules seem to be in the way. With any luck, your organization will understand. There are bigger risks than having fewer staffers at the conference this year.
C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Click here to submit questions. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship.