Ethical Partying

Toothpicks Signify New K St. Holiday Style

Posted December 4, 2007 at 6:24pm

’Tis the season for standing up at parties, eating with toothpicks and getting the menu vetted by an ethics expert.

At least, it is if you want to invite Members of Congress and staffers to holiday shindigs this year, the first under tougher new ethics rules.

“Lawyers are being turned into catering consultants,” said Steven Law, general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

To be sure, the tighter new ethics rules and jitters about Hill types partying at lobbyist-hosted holiday events haven’t killed Christmas altogether.

Over the next few weeks, Congressional aides and Members can celebrate parties hosted by the National Mining Association, Barr Pharmaceuticals and Williams & Jensen, which is hosting a Peppermint Twist cocktail reception. Already Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Lockheed Martin, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, U.S. Telecom Association and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America have feted their contacts around town.

To help them navigate the crush of festivities this month, staffers are even circulating unofficial databases listing event dates and locations.

But those hitting the holiday circuit will notice subtle changes designed to bring parties inside the new, narrower lines.

Where corporate hosts used to rely on a loosely enforced $50 gift limit to justify lavishly entertaining their friends from the Hill, they now must contend with a zero-tolerance policy.

That means events need to qualify for one of the exemptions to the gift ban. Ethics lawyers said they are steering corporate revelers away from seeking a green light under the loophole for so-called widely-attended events. While those gatherings allow hosts to serve sit-down meals, legal experts said sponsors will be hard-pressed to meet the ethics committee requirement that they relate to policymakers’ official business.

Instead, several lawyers said, they are advising party planners to scale back their gatherings to meet the more restrictive standard for receptions. For those events, hosts are only allowed to serve finger foods.

“This is clearly not one of the evils Congress was trying to address with these new rules, but it is a new reality. And people need to be aware that the widely attended exemption is not going to work,” Stefan Passantino, a compliance expert with McKenna Long & Aldridge, said. “People are scaling back as a result.”

Craig Holman — a lobbyist with Public Citizen, which crusaded for the tighter ethics rules — said he had to slim down the menu for the group’s annual holiday party so as not to run afoul of the new system.

“I’m kind of known as the scrooge around here,” Holman said. He advised Public Citizen head Joan Claybrook to take off the menu roast turkeys and deli sandwiches, so the party would fit under the receptions, also known as “finger foods,” exception.

“Joan would put in a lot of work to these parties and put in these huge turkeys, and so I had to suggest that might cross the line,” Holman said. Still, “it’s going to be a good party,” he said.

At the Chamber of Commerce, which hosts one of the most popular holiday parties of the year at its palatial H Street headquarters, Law has been vetting the details of this year’s more Spartan affair. Gone is the Santa Claus that used to pose for pictures with guests as they arrived — the photos could be construed as a thing of value, and therefore a no-no under the gift ban.

And the buffet will be more meager than in years past. For example, Law said: no silverware. “Or anything that would require you to sit down to eat it. We’re completely in the realm of finger foods.”

Likewise for the National Beer Wholesalers Association party, in the cafeteria of the Rayburn House Office Building in conjunction with the Brewers Association. “There will be no sit-down food, no silverware required,” said the group’s Rebecca Spicer. “Toothpicks and fingers will be your utensils.”

Some lobbying groups are trying to pre-empt any ethics questions. A disclaimer that an event complies with the new ethics rules has become a popular tagline on invites this year. The notice for a Friday party hosted by the lobbying firm mCapitol Management signs off by noting the event is “designed to comply with applicable ethics rules.”

Gary LaPaille, president of the firm, said he worked with ethics lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to come up with the wording and to vet the party. “Let’s let any person that’s covered by this know that mCapitol is a company and firm that wants to abide by the letter of the law and the rules,” he said.

The firm previously had hosted a July Fourth party, but this year skipped it over confusion with the new ethics rules. “It was too fresh,” LaPaille said. “Since then, the decision was, look, just because Jack Abramoff had some sleazy friends, doesn’t mean we should turn away from friends that we’ve known for many years.”

Other shops are doing away with goodie bags and take-away trinkets they used to hand out to attendees. The National Association of Broadcasters, which last year gave away mini foam Capitol domes emblazoned with the NAB logo, had planned to dole out stainless steel coffee mugs worth less than $10 this year. The group scrapped that idea after conferring with the Senate and House ethics committees. “Just to be safe, we decided not to hand out any little tchotchke,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. “Just to make sure there’s no hint of impropriety.”

One fixture of the K Street holiday scene, the Quinn Gillespie & Associates party, is off this year, but not because of ethics concerns. “We had an extremely busy fall trying to make sure we have the best year ever,” firm founder Jack Quinn, a Democratic lobbyist, said. “We’ll resume partying in January.”

There are still bright spots on the Advent calendar.

The Recording Industry Association of America is planning a bash for Dec. 12 with such groups as the Entertainment Software Association and Motion Picture Association of America. Details are sketchy, but the rumored featured guest is recording star Wyclef Jean.

“We have reviewed our plans with counsel and we are very confident that our annual holiday celebration, which we are delighted to have hundreds of guests attend every year, is consistent with the ethics rules,” RIAA’s Jonathan Lamy wrote in an e-mail.

Also helping fill out dance cards on and off the Hill is a late-breaking glut of fundraisers, unusual for the end of a non-election year. Today alone, those looking to support House Democrats will have no less than 19 events to choose from, according to a directory of events compiled by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The holiday parties are now fundraisers,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “It’s just like a normal month.”