Curtain Call

Posted May 15, 2007 at 6:35pm

For lawmakers struggling to abide by the new ethics rules, the difference between an infraction and an all-clear can turn on your perspective — literally. [IMGCAP(1)]

The folks at the Shakespeare Theatre Co. found out firsthand earlier this month as they prepared to stage their annual “Will on the Hill” program, an annual charity event featuring theatrical performances by Members of Congress.

Confusion still reigns over whether and how lawmakers are allowed to participate in the local charity scene since House rules changes adopted at the beginning of the year inadvertently banned Members from accepting free tickets to do-gooder events whose sponsors employ lobbyists. Since the Shakespeare Theatre Co. recently retained lobbyists — Manatt, Phelps & Phillips did pro bono work until 2005 trying to secure funding for the group — it appeared aspiring Congressional thespians might run afoul of the rules if they took to the stage.

Would the ethics committee relegate them to understudy status? And what about their colleagues? Could they cheer from the audience?

The theater group sought guidance from the panel and received a mixed review: It was OK for Members to act in the performance, because they would be participating. It was not OK for Members to sit in the audience for free, because that would constitute a violation of the new ban on gifts from entities that employ lobbyists, according to Liza Lorenz, a spokeswoman for the group.

Reps. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) were among the nine lawmakers who turned up May 7 to perform in “What’s in a Name?” a political parody based on “Romeo and Juliet.”

Their Congressional cheering section was notably smaller: Only Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) shelled out the $45 per ticket to attend, with his nephew. “I’m a fan of live theater,” he explained.

Amid considerable squealing from the local charity circuit, House Democratic leaders have pledged to fix the rule banning Members from attending charity events for free, calling it an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the ethics reform changes. A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not return a call for comment on when, or if, that will actually happen.

Blues for Congress. At least one organization doesn’t have the blues over tighter ethics requirements. The Congressional Blues Festival, which helps raise money and awareness for the Music Maker Relief Foundation, is planning on plenty of Members and staff to turn out for its fourth annual concert tonight.

Ryan Costello, founder of the free festival and a foundation board member, said the celebration of American music tonight at the Mellon Auditorium received an exemption from the ethics committees.

“We’re not lobbying any cause,” Costello said. The foundation raises money for elderly American blues artists — for basics such as food and rent — and also helps the music makers record albums to make extra money.

Tonight’s festival, he said, “has turned into one of their signature fundraisers, so financially they will benefit.” Corporate donations put on the concert.

The group’s e-mail invite reads: “While this event has been approved by both the House and Senate ethics committees as a ‘charity event,’ House members and staff are not allowed to receive gifts of any kind from companies that hire registered lobbyists. On the Senate side, since these tickets have no face value and are therefore under the $50 gift rule, you are allowed to provide tickets. However, as the charity event organizers we can provide tickets to both the House and the Senate and we have made sure that well over 1,000 Members and staff will be there.”

Members on tap include Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.). Performers include Adolphus Bell, James Harman and the Derek Trucks Band.

International Affairs. Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, is putting his international affairs muscle behind a couple’s cause. From his firm Tew Cardenas, Noriega has taken the case of Gustavo and Maria Cristina Llanos, who are looking to recover confiscated lands in Nicaragua, up to Capitol Hill.

The lobbyist already has enlisted the help of Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), who penned a letter to the Nicaraguan government asking for the country to respect the property rights of the Llanos and others who lost land during the Sandinista government of the 1970s and 1980s.

There are thousands of such claims, Noriega said. “The government of Nicaragua has an international obligation to provide adequate and just compensation for the property,” he said. Compensation includes cash, bonds or comparable land holding elsewhere in the country.

Noriega, who previously worked for then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), said that he worked on property rights cases while in the government, but “this is the first time I’ve done it in private practice.”

The Miami-based Llanos couple, Noriega said, is not politically prominent in Nicaragua. The couple owned land that at the time was on the outskirts of Managua but today is “now in the middle of Managua. It’s like Arlington, Va., was 100 years ago.”

Speaking of International Affairs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to launch an effort with companies doing business in the United Arab Emirates. The U.S.-UAE Business Council will try to expand commercial relations between the United States and the UAE and will kick off today at an event that includes the chamber’s Daniel Christman and UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

When it comes to UAE business, in March Halliburton announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to Dubai, and of course, there was that infamous dust-up over the Dubai Ports deal, in which the management of six U.S. seaports was sold to a UAE-owned company.