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Dozens of lawmakers and staffers made what has become an annual pilgrimage from Capitol Hill to the desert in mid-January to attend the trade show hosted by the Consumer Electronics Association each winter in Las Vegas.
The International CES, as the event was called this year, is a four-day conference that draws tech industry leaders, investors, celebrities, media and policymakers. This January, more than 3,250 exhibitors unveiled tablets, smartphones, high-definition televisions, driverless-vehicle technology and other gadgets. There were panel discussions on immigration, patent trolls and other policy issues.
Though congressional attendees in the past were largely forced to limit their visits to a day, a handful of staffers this year capitalized on two ethics rules that allowed them to turn a quick convention stop into a four-day, three-night trip, with the Consumer Electronics Association picking up most of the tab.
“I don’t look at the staffers and say, ‘You sneaky little folks.’ I look at this and say, ‘Until Congress is willing to bite the bullet and set up a travel system that makes sense, you’re going to have these kinds of situations all the time,’” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group.
At least 32 lawmakers and staffers attended the show in mid-January as guests of the association, which shelled out more than $44,000 for their airfare, hotel accommodations and other expenses, according to tallies provided by LegiStorm. The guest list included Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Reps. Lee Terry, R-Neb., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., according to post-travel disclosure filings. Those totals could rise as stragglers in the Senate file their disclosure reports, which are due 30 days after a trip is completed.
House lawmakers and staffers normally cannot accept lobbyist-sponsored travel connected to official business lasting more than one day. The Consumer Electronics Association spent about $2.8 million last year on lobbying activities, according to OpenSecrets.org. Attendees were reminded of the restriction when they received their pre-travel approval letters from the House Ethics Committee late last year.
“We remind you that, because the trip sponsor employs a federal lobbyist, you may participate in officially-connected activity on one calendar day only. For purposes of this trip, officially-connected activity includes attending conference sessions and visiting the product exhibits on the ‘Show Floor,’” read a pre-approval letter sent in mid-December from then-Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner, R-Ala., and ranking member Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif.
Despite the restriction, the Ethics Committee in “exceptional circumstances” authorizes a second night’s stay, taking into account the availability of transportation to and from the destination, the distance traveled and if the member or staffer participating has such a full schedule of official activities that it would be difficult or impossible to complete travel in a day.
The rules likewise allow travelers to extend trips at their own expense by taking additional days immediately preceding or following the official portion of the trip and still accept round-trip transportation from the sponsor, provided certain criteria are met.
“As a general rule, when the number of days for personal travel exceeds the number of days of the privately-sponsored trip, the gift rule does not permit acceptance of round-trip transportation from the private source. Especially with regard to extending a one-day event trip at one’s personal expense, Members and staff should consult the Committee’s Office of Advice and Education for guidance before arranging the travel,” the House Ethics Manual states.
By combining the two provisions, several staffers this year stayed in Las Vegas for three nights and four days while still accepting round-trip transportation from the Consumer Electronics Association.
Two staffers in the office of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana — Curtis Rhyne and Ja’Ron Smith — flew to Las Vegas on Jan. 9 and did not return until Jan. 12, according to post-travel disclosure forms filed with the House Ethics Committee. At the International CES they “examined new technology that will be available to consumers to help prevent accidents resulting from distracted driving,” according to the forms.
Frederick Hill, communications director to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., flew in Jan. 6 and left Jan. 9. On Jan. 8, Hill attended a film on modern business Internet usage, went to a panel discussion, toured the conference floor for product demonstrations and went to a dinner reception.
Issa has in past years attended the conference as a private businessman, but a representative confirmed he did not go to Las Vegas for the show this January.
The Consumer Electronics Association has highlighted how its conferences affect policy. In a press release for this year’s show, it said more than 75 government guests were expected to be in attendance, and it noted how Issa, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro held a news conference at the 2012 gathering detailing how they would defeat legislation intended to combat online piracy. The release added that they made good on those plans just a week after the show closed.