question-of-ethics

FEC Clarifies Rules for Food and Drink at Fundraisers | A Question of Ethics

Q.  As someone who has worked on campaigns for Members of the House for many years, I have a question about campaign fundraisers. I had always thought that when donors attend a fundraiser where food and drink are served, their entire ticket price counts as a contribution from the donor. I heard recently though that when donors pay for the cost of food and drink they enjoy at a fundraiser, campaigns do not have to treat the payments as contribution. That seems rife for abuse. Is it true? A.  Yes and no. A recent opinion issued by the Federal Election Commission says that, in limited circumstances, donors may pay for food and drink at campaign fundraisers without the payments counting as “contributions.” But, the circumstances in which this is permissible are narrowly defined, so be careful.  

As you know, federal election law requires campaigns to record and disclose the source and amount of contributions they receive. It also imposes strict limits on the amounts that individuals may contribute to a campaign. In the current election cycle, an individual donor may contribute no more than $2,700 to a candidate’s committee, per election.  

Can Bartering Official Acts Ever Be Legal? | Question of Ethics

Q. I am hoping you can explain the recent ruling on Rod Blagojevich’s appeal of his corruption convictions. I know that the court upheld nearly all of his convictions, but I was interested to see that the court threw out several as well. Why did it do this, and is there any significance to the decision? A.  Some political trades are legal. Some are not. That distinction is at the heart of last month’s decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.  

In 2011, Blagojevich was convicted of 18 crimes stemming from conduct while governor of Illinois. The crimes included lying to the government, attempted extortion from campaign contributors and corrupt solicitation of funds, among others.  

What Does Bob McDonnell’s Case Mean for Members and Staffers? | Question of Ethics

Q. I am not an attorney, but I have several friends who are, and they seem to think that the latest development in Bob McDonnell’s legal case is significant. I know that McDonnell lost the appeal of his conviction on corruption charges. But, can you explain the legal significance of the case to a non-lawyer like me? Should it mean anything to those of us on the Hill? A.  Yes, it should. Though Bob McDonnell was a state government official — governor of Virginia — he was tried in federal courts by federal prosecutors for violations of federal laws, the same laws that apply to government officials all around the country, including members and staffers on the Hill. Therefore, the recent decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., to reject McDonnell’s appeal could have consequences well beyond Virginia.  

The issue in the case that many attorneys have been watching closely is what kinds of actions are covered by federal prohibitions on bribery. Federal law provides that public officials may not corruptly demand, seek or receive anything of value “in return for ... being influenced in the performance of any official act.”  

Are Lobbyists Banned From House and Senate Gyms? | A Question of Ethics

A walking machine at the House Fitness Center. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Q. I am a former officer of the House now working as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. I love my job, but sometimes wonder if we lobbyists are unfairly singled out and discriminated against. One example I recently learned about is that former members and officers who become lobbyists are apparently not allowed to use House exercise facilities, while other former members and officers are. Is this really true? A. Lobbyists do get a bad rap, don’t they? At the federal level, many laws impose restrictions that apply to lobbyists but not to anyone else. And, in states, it can be even worse, where “lobbyist” can verge on being a bad word. Some states even require lobbyists to wear the virtual equivalent of a scarlet "L" whenever they are engaged in lobbying. Connecticut, for example, requires anyone engaged in lobbying to wear a badge identifying themselves as a lobbyist, with the “color, material, and other requirements of such badge ... prescribed by regulation.” In 2011, a lobbyist was fined $10,000 for lobbying without a badge.  

So, what about House exercise facilities? Again, there is a distinction between lobbyists and everyone else.  

May Judicial Candidates Be Prevented From Seeking Campaign Funds? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I just read that in some states, people running for judicial positions may not seek contributions to their campaigns. This struck me as nonsensical, but the article said that the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the prohibition. Is it really the case that states prohibit judicial candidates from seeking campaign contributions? And, why would the Supreme Court allow these prohibitions? A. You are campaigning for office, but you cannot seek money for your campaign. That would put a bit of a damper on things for our nation’s politicians, wouldn’t it?  

Yet, in many states, this is how things are for judicial candidates. While federal judges obtain their seats by appointment, in 39 states judges are elected at the polls. Many of these states prohibit judicial candidates from personally soliciting funds for their campaigns. Why would they do this? Let’s look at the recent Supreme Court case you mention as an example.  

May a Staffer Ask for a Free Meal? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I do not work on the Hill, but I have several friends who do, and I have a question about when it’s okay to buy them a meal. I had lunch the other day with a chief of staff of a member of the House of Representatives. He forgot his wallet and so asked if I could by lunch. I don’t know anything about government ethics rules, but he said it was fine because the rules allow staffers to accept meals and gifts worth less than $50 from anyone other than a lobbyist, and our tab was $40 after tip. I went ahead and paid based on this, but I later asked another staffer, and he said it was probably not okay for me to have done so. What gives? A. Thanks for the great question, which illustrates a limitation on the exceptions to the gift rule that can be easy to overlook.  

But, let’s start with the gift rule. Though the House gift rule can seem complicated, the rule itself is simple. It can be stated in two words: no gifts. Members and staffers may not accept any gifts from anyone unless an exception applies. It’s the exceptions that can make things confusing.  

What Are the Charges Against Menendez? | A Question of Ethics

Q. As a resident of New Jersey, I have seen many different perspectives on the recent indictment of Bob Menendez. Some here in New Jersey are supporting him, while others have called for his resignation. What I want to know is what exactly the charges are against Menendez and what the government needs to prove. I’ve generally heard it referred to as a bribery case, but are there any other charges against Menendez? A. On April 1, a federal grand jury in New Jersey indicted Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and his friend Salomon Melgen on multiple counts of criminal offenses. The charges rest on Menendez’s relationship with Melgen, and, yes, mostly concern bribery. The indictment alleges Menendez and Melgen used Menendez’s “official position as a United States Senator to benefit and enrich themselves through bribery.” In short, prosecutors allege Menendez received things of value from Melgen, and, in return, Menendez took official actions for Melgen.  

The things of value include trips on Melgen’s private jets, vacations, contributions to Menendez’s legal defense fund and “hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions to entities supporting Menendez’s re-election effort.”  

May Lobbyists Lobby Their Spouses? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I read that Rep. [Edward] Whitfield, R-Ky., is under investigation for allowing his wife to lobby his office on behalf of her employer. Is it illegal for someone to lobby their spouse? And if so, does that mean lobbyists who are married to Members of Congress cannot discuss policy with their spouse or have any contact with their spouse’s staff? That sounds like a difficult rule to follow. Is it really the case? A. Last November, the House Ethics Committee announced it had decided to conduct a more in-depth review of allegations that Whitfield broke ethics rules by permitting his wife to lobby himself and his staff. The committee had been referred the matter by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which investigates ethics complaints to determine those that warrant further review by the committee. In accordance with ethics rules, when the committee announced its decision, it also released the OCE’s investigative report, which explains the allegations against Whitfield.  

The report states the claims regarding illegal lobbying are premised largely on House Rule 25, Clause 7, which provides that, “A Member ... shall prohibit all staff employed by that Member ... from making any lobbying contact ... with that individual’s spouse” if the spouse is a registered federal lobbyist. So, to answer your first question, yes it is illegal for a registered lobbyist to lobby their spouse and staff if their spouse is a member of Congress. Likewise, if you are a member and your wife is a lobbyist, you should not allow her to have any lobbying contacts with your staff. As it turns out, the trick is what counts as a “lobbying contact.”  

What Is All the Fuss About Campaign Coordination? | A Question of Ethics

Q. Some friends of mine who are lawyers were recently discussing a political corruption prosecution that they seemed to think was a big deal. I believe it involved some sort of campaign finance violations by the campaign manager of someone who ran for Congress a few years back. As a non-lawyer, it wasn’t clear to me what all the fuss was about. After all, people get prosecuted for political corruption all of the time. Are you aware of the case I’m describing, and, if so, what makes it such a big deal? A. I believe I am. Last month, the Department of Justice announced a political operative named Tyler Harber pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from campaign finance improprieties in the 2012 federal election. The DOJ’s press release said, “This is the first criminal prosecution in the United States based upon the coordination of campaign contributions between political committees.”  

OK, fine, but what does that mean?  

Can Selling Something Be an Ethics Violation? | A Question of Ethics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Q. I read that Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., may face an ethics investigation for selling his house for too high a price. As a longtime House staffer, this worried me. I’ve sold several big-ticket items over the years — cars, a boat, houses, and while I’ve always tried to make sure that the selling price is not too low, it never occurred to me to ensure that the price is not too high. Can it really be an ethics violation to get too good of a deal on something I sell? A. Good question. In theory, it is conceivable that selling something could give rise to an ethics violation. House gift rules prohibit members and staffers from accepting anything of value — including money — unless an exception applies. One of the exceptions allows receipt of something for which the recipient pays market value. Conversely, the House Ethics Manual says an improper gift may exist when a member or staffer is sold property at less than market value, “or receives more than market value in selling property.” In practice it would be hard to imagine the House Ethics Committee would deem it an ethics violation for a member or staffer to negotiate a good deal in an arms-length transaction. Absent evidence the deal resulted from some sort of conspiracy between the seller and buyer, it seems unlikely the Ethics Committee would be concerned.  

Earlier this month, an advocacy group sent a letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics requesting an investigation into whether Schock improperly sold his house at a price above market value. The OCE is the organization that screens ethics complaints by the public against members and staffers to determine whether further review is warranted by the House Ethics Committee.