Bottoms Up

Posted February 13, 2007 at 6:08pm

Everybody knows the new ethics rules, among other things, were a major party pooper. But as nerves settle, more sources of corporate-funded fun may be making a comeback. The latest: happy hours. [IMGCAP(1)]

Lobbyists eager to revive the practice of taking staffers out for a few beers are hopefully eyeing a House ethics committee memo issued last week that could be interpreted as an “all clear.” The memo states that, even under the new rules, lawmakers and staff can accept “food or refreshments of a nominal value offered other than as part of a meal.” That means coffee, juice, pastries and bagels at morning meetings are kosher. More importantly, so are “the kinds of food and refreshments usually offered at receptions (such as hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, and beverages),” the memo states.

“People are looking at these guidelines and assuming that happy hours are OK again,” said one corporate source.

“That’s our interpretation as well,” said Ben Jenkins, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of America, a group particularly keen on seeing Washingtonians enjoy their after-hours. “It’s something as representatives of the hospitality industry, we’d like to participate in. It gives us a good opportunity to highlight our important message of responsibility and moderation, and we’d encourage everyone to enjoy their happy hours responsibly.”

But before lobbyists and Capitol Hill types belly back up to the bar, they should study the new rules closely. Under the old regime, lawmakers and staffers could let corporate friends pick up the bar tab, assuming their own stake didn’t top $50.

And while the new zero-tolerance policy — in force in the House and pending the Senate — still allows for some freebie snacks and drinks, experts note the ethics committee has always framed the exemption in the context of a reception, not an outing to a bar.

“It’s an interesting question,” said Corey Rubin, a lobbying ethics lawyer at Kelley Drye Collier Shannon. “It’s left open this kind of gray area.”

Rubin said Members and staff should use their judgment: a 25-year-old scotch most likely would be off limits, but a $3 beer would be OK. Buffalo wings and other shared finger foods likely would fall within the exemption, although fried calamari — if eaten off a plate with a fork — could be considered a meal, and therefore a no-no.

Campaign finance lawyer Marc Elias had a stricter reading, arguing the exemption is targeted at receptions exclusively, meaning an impromptu happy hour would constitute a violation.

To ensure they stay within both the letter and spirit of the new rules, Jenkins said his group would not head back out until the ethics committee makes “concrete recommendations.” He said the group will be seeking guidance from the panel.

Spin Control. If you’re a Cassidy & Associates client, go check your mailbox.

In advance of a much-anticipated Washington Post series on lobbying and the life and career of its founder, Gerald Cassidy, the firm is sending a letter to all its clients this week to alert them to the upcoming stories.

It’s all part of an effort by the firm to prepare for what could be one of the Post’s longest looks at a lobbying firm.

Cassidy himself has started a blog on the firm’s Web site where, the letter to clients says, he will post his “thoughts on the articles and the events and issues they cover.”

Cassidy also has launched an effort calling for strict lobbying ethics reforms and for publicly financed campaigns.

“It’s really quite an unprecedented project for the paper,” Cassidy & Associates spokesman Tom Alexander said of the Post’s series. The Post reporter and editor in charge of the series, according to the Cassidy & Associates letter, is Robert Kaiser, who did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

“We did quite a bit of research, and we didn’t find any current or former presidents or celebrities who have received this type of attention,” Alexander added. “With all due respect to Gerry, we’re all still scratching our heads.”

Cassidy and others at the firm have participated in “countless interviews” for the pieces, which the letter says are set to begin in the paper’s March 4 edition.

More than 20 stories will continue on the paper’s Web site, with a hard-copy wrap-up on April 8, says the letter sent by the firm’s CEO Marty Russo, a former Democratic Member of Congress.

The letter adds, “As the series tracks the transformation of the [lobbying] industry, it will cover the extraordinary story of Cassidy & Associates and the personalities that have been a part of the firm’s history. It will also share with readers the personal side of Gerry Cassidy’s life — from a family of Irish immigrants on the streets of New York City to the leader of Washington’s premier lobbying firm.”

The letter also praises Kaiser for his “strong reputation as one of the nation’s leading journalists” who is “known for his commitment to the values of serious and unbiased journalism.”

Spokesman Alexander said the story likely will be difficult for Cassidy.

“Anyone who knows Gerry, knows that he’s a very private person,” Alexander said. “Gerry and [wife] Loretta have always enjoyed their privacy rather than the Washington social scene. So the attention and time leading up to this and during the series is going to be an uncomfortable experience.”

Just how uncomfortable remains to be seen. Already, Cassidy has said on his blog that he has at least one regret, a brief working relationship with now jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“Sure, I’ve made mistakes along the way,” Cassidy writes, “among them was falling for the smoke and mirrors of the man at the center of the worst violation of our profession, of the public’s trust and the Constitution. That violation is why the recent action by Congress to shine light on the relationship between K Street and Capitol Hill is so important to restoring the reputation of lobbyists.”

It’s Official. While it came as no surprise to K Street Files, former House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) has joined the American Enterprise Institute as a visiting fellow.

In a press release, AEI President Christopher DeMuth said, “We are very proud to welcome Bill Thomas to the AEI team. Both his intellect and his vast legislative experience will be an enormous asset to AEI.”

K Street Files reported on Jan. 22 that Thomas was in talks with AEI. Thomas, who also is expected to start a consulting venture, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Moving On. Ed Merlis, senior vice president for government and regulatory affairs at the United States Telecom Association, is leaving at the end of the week. Merlis, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, will be starting his own firm, having already signed up the association as a client, USTA spokeswoman Allison Remsen said. “He is going off on his own, and we will be one of his first clients, and we’re thrilled for him,” she said.

Merlis, who coordinated lobbying strategy with member companies, was the group’s top Democrat. Remsen said the association is “looking to replace him, and looking for the best person for the job.”

K Street Moves. Lobbyists looking to connect with the Treasury Department should get to know Mina Nguyen. As the new deputy assistant secretary for business affairs and public liaison, she will manage the department’s outreach to the business, advocacy and financial worlds. Nguyen comes to Treasury from the Republican National Committee, where she was director of government affairs.

• Google Inc. has added a telecom policy expert to its growing Washington, D.C. office. Rick Whitt will serve as Washington telecom and media counsel for the company. Prior to this, he founded NetsEdge Consulting, a locally based public policy consulting firm.

• The law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has added three members to its D.C. government relations team: Alexander Dahl, an ex-Senate Judiciary Committee counsel; James Flood, who hails from the Justice Department; and David Cohen, formerly the deputy director for policy and government affairs for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.