A recent panel discussion about alleged governmental corruption in Ukraine, organized by lobbyist and former Rep. Connie Mack, has raised questions about the appropriate uses of meeting rooms under the House speaker’s jurisdiction.
It also offers a glimpse into the often murky world of lobbying on behalf of foreign clients seeking to use the nation’s capital as a way to advance policies abroad.
Mack, a Florida Republican who did not respond to requests for comment, hosted the forum in Room HC-8 of the Capitol on Sept. 25 after Kansas GOP Rep. Ron Estes sponsored the room’s booking. Neither Estes nor his aides attended the event, spokesman Robert Kuhlman said. Longstanding guidelines for using the rooms require the member or a staff person to be there.
Ethics experts said Mack’s use of the Capitol meeting room raises concerns about whether it stayed within rules set by the speaker’s office.
“A congressperson can’t just turn over a room to a lobbyist for their purposes — the member is supposed to be reserving the room for some kind of project related to the members’ official duties,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. “It sounds like it did cross the line.”
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan, declined to comment about the rules governing the rooms in the speaker’s jurisdiction, though the House ethics manual references the guidelines.
Estes’ office said in an emailed statement that it booked the room “as a courtesy” for Mack “to host an event on alleged corruption in Ukraine. House staff from both sides of the aisle receive these requests routinely on many diverse issues and typically approve these requests to provide opportunities for groups to meet and present viewpoints.”
“Our office policy for reserving rooms has been updated to ensure that Congressman Estes can attend events when rooms have been booked by his staff,” the statement read.
Holman said it was unlikely Estes would face any ethics trouble. As a registered lobbyist, Holman said he has also booked congressional meeting rooms to highlight recent research reports on governmental ethics and other matters.
“I always get a sponsor who is concerned about this, and usually the sponsor will show up,” he said.
Chris DeLacy, an ethics lawyer at Holland & Knight, said he advises clients on using Capitol meeting rooms where charitable and fundraising events are not allowed.
“As far as the actual content of what goes on in the room, unless you’re promoting a corporation or commercial venture, I’m not sure they would restrict what is said,” he said.
Attention from Ukraine
The panel discussion attracted media coverage in Ukraine, where officials said the event was portrayed there as a congressional hearing or congressional probe.
“It just happened to be convened in a room on Capitol Hill by an American who was once, years ago, a congressman,” said Dmytro Shymkiv, deputy head of the presidential administration of Ukraine, in a statement provided by his government’s registered foreign agents at the BGR Group. “The event was filled with falsehoods and dangerous exaggerations.”
The event featured Serhii Taruta, a member of the Ukraine Parliament, and was critical of Valeria Gontareva, the National Bank of Ukraine’s former chief. Former CIA Director James Woolsey attended, according to a Weekly Standard report.
Mack, a member of the House Foreign Affairs panel while in Congress, did not respond to questions sent to an aide, William Cardon. Another lobbyist involved in the panel, Matt Keelen of The Keelen Group, referred questions to Mack, whom he said organized the discussion.
Mack did not reference any specific client in an email invitation to the panel. But he and Keelen are registered to represent Interconnection Commerce S.A., to highlight “corruption within the National Bank of Ukraine,” according to lobbying disclosure reports filed with Congress this year. Mack’s filing for the Interconnection Commerce client lists its address in Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands.
Mack disclosed that Interconnection Commerce paid his firm, Liberty International Group of Fort Myers, Florida, $60,000 in fees so far this year.
In his closing remarks at the panel discussion, Mack encouraged the U.S. government to further examine potential corruption in Ukraine, according to an audio recording of the panel.
“One thing is clear: that we the Congress of the United States, when there are taxpayer dollars at risk and there are allegations, suggestions and evidence, should investigate, and I think what you’ve heard from our two panelists today is that certainly there’s more than enough there for Treasury Department, for the United States to look into these corruption issues. If we really want to help Ukraine, then we need to be more proactive when it comes to helping [stamp] out corruption,” Mack can be heard saying on the recording.