Wedding Gifts OK Under Rules

Waivers Excuse Members, Staff From Filing Some Reports

Posted June 20, 2008 at 6:01pm

Wedding bells chimed for a handful of Members last year — when at least six House lawmakers tied the knot — but there are no telltale toasters, bread-makers or china settings to be found in recently released financial disclosures.

Despite strict gift rules that aim to otherwise curb potential influence with lawmakers, Members and senior staff are allowed to seek waivers of the gift rule for significant events, including weddings and the birth of children, according to the House and Senate ethics manuals.

Among the half-dozen House lawmakers who said “I do” in 2007, none of those who have filed to date have declared the receipt of any gifts on their annual reports. Two lawmakers have sought extensions for their reports.

While the waivers don’t suspend the regular gift rules in their entirety — lobbyists are still prohibited from handing out trinkets — they do allow Members or aides to accept gifts valued at more than $250 “on the basis of personal friendship” from multiple individuals.

Under normal circumstances, lawmakers and aides may accept gifts from “personal friends” valued up to $250 without requesting a gift waiver. Ethics rules otherwise prohibit gifts valued at more than $49.99, or more than $99.99 from a single source each year.

The gift waiver clears items such as the KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer or Krups Combi Coffee and Espresso Machine, both listed at $299.95, that Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and wife Catherine Holahan registered for at a high-end cooking store. In fact, the freshman Democrat received a waiver months prior to his August 2007 wedding. But other gifts, such as the Wusthof Classic 8-Piece Knife Set priced at $349.95, trigger another set of reporting requirements.

Under House ethics rules, a Member must report any gift valued above the $335 limit on their annual financial disclosures (up slightly from $305 in 2007), unless they request a formal waiver, as Murphy did in a one-paragraph letter May 13 to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

“I am seeking a waiver of the gift disclosure requirement that the gifts received in connection with my wedding be disclosed in my annual financial disclosure form,” Murphy wrote. “This is in connection with the waiver that the Committee provided me in advance of my wedding waiver gift limit rules in connection with gifts received at my wedding.”

Among those lawmakers who tied the knot last year but did not have a disclosure waiver on file with the Clerk of the House or any gifts on their annual reports were Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), who married former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas) in March 2007, and Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), who married Sabrina Deon in August 2007.

Although lawmakers are required to make a gift disclosure waiver public, Members are not under similar demands to publicize whether they have received a gift waiver for items under the $335 limit.

Arcuri’s office said the Democratic freshman received only a gift waiver, and a Herseth Sandlin aide said the South Dakotan did likewise.

“She did not submit the request to waive the reporting requirement, as she didn’t receive any gifts that exceeded the $305 limit,” a Herseth Sandlin aide said. “Her wedding was a small ceremony among family and friends in Brookings, S.D., and they requested that guests’ gifts be modest.”

Republican Reps. Connie Mack IV (Fla.) and Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) married each other in December 2007, and while both requested gift waivers, according to their offices, neither has a disclosure waiver on file with the Clerk of the House.

According to Bono Mack spokesman Jennifer May, the Californian requested a gift waiver in an Oct. 12, 2007, letter to the ethics panel “advising them she was going to be marrying Congressman Connie Mack, and she did receive a written advisory from them … to waive the prohibitions on the acceptance of gifts in an unusual case.”

May said the Californian did not request a disclosure waiver, presumably because she received no gifts that would trigger the requirement.

Mack has requested an extension on his financial disclosure, as has Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who married astronaut Mark Kelly in November 2007.

Ken Gross, an ethics expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said he advises soon-to-be-wed Members and senior aides to seek the gift waiver, adding that the ethics panels typically are willing to provide the exceptions.

“If you keep it under $250, and you can show friendship, you wouldn’t have to go to the ethics committee and get a waiver, and you can just rely on the standard friendship exception, which typically is a very difficult exception to meet,” Gross said.

“It is not an automatic free pass because a Member’s getting married that you can provide a gift under any circumstance, and that’s why it’s very helpful … for the Member to seek a waiver from the ethics committee,” he added.

In fact, in a Sept. 13, 2007, letter to Mack, a copy of which was provided by his office, the ethics committee approved his gift waiver request with a cautionary tone.

“Notwithstanding the grant of this waiver, you should exercise caution in accepting any gift that likely would not have been offered but for your status as a Member of Congress. With regard to any such gift, you should consider its source, nature, and value, as well as any possible conflict of interest with official duties,” ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) wrote.