Ethics rule leaves lawmakers room to partyby Brian Bakst, Associated Press
St. Paul, Minn. (AP) — They will revel in riverboats, art galleries and posh restaurants. Moreover, members of Congress will still be welcome at parties thrown by lobbyists during next year's national political conventions.
To the dismay of watchdog groups, an opinion from a congressional committee limits the reach of a new ethics law designed to curb lobbyists' influence via convention parties.
On its face, the law bars lawmakers from attending events in their honor during the conventions if they are financed by lobbyists or private entities that employ or retain lobbyists.
According to the advisory opinion from a House ethics panel, though, the law merely covers receptions where congressmen are advertised by name as a guest of honor or are given a prominent role. They are free to go if a broader delegation is honored.
The new law and how it would be enforced created uncertainty about party planning for the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
At past conventions, corporations, trade groups and unions staged glitzy cocktail parties, golf outings and invitation-only concerts featuring key lawmakers.
"I was very surprised at the leeway apparently granted by this committee," said Cynthia Berry, a leading lobbyist for Powell Goldstein and head of the Washington firm's political action committee. For party hosts, she added, the ruling "gives them opportunities to continue to do what they were already doing."
That's what irritates Fred Wertheimer, president of the Washington watchdog group Democracy 21. He had hailed the ethics law adopted in September as the toughest since Watergate.
"The guidance is absolutely absurd. It's from a different planet," Wertheimer said Friday. "We are certainly going to challenge it and try to get it withdrawn and changed."
Added Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, "They passed it one month and gutted it a few months later."
The interpretation was issued Tuesday by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct; its Senate counterpart has yet to weigh in.
There's other wiggle room, too. The opinion said the law specifically applies to events "directly paid for" by a lobbyist but leaves open the possibility that money could come from multiple sources. And the rule doesn't apply to events held outside the official convention windows -- Aug. 25-28 for the Democrats and Sept. 1-4 for the Republicans.
In Minnesota, at least four companies are helping match potential party hosts with venues, food and entertainment.
Scott Cottington, a partner in GOP Convention Strategies, said some people were leery about moving forward until the law was more clearly defined. He said his clients see a value in putting on the parties.
"The physics of politics haven't changed. You want to see and be seen with powerful people. You want to get along with them. You want them to listen to what you say," he said. "Getting with these people outside of the office is quite a coup sometimes."
Still, Berry said stiff penalties in the law -- it threatens prison time and fines for offending lobbyists and lost pensions for lax lawmakers -- means some will not bother with parties at next year's convention even with the clarification. "Nobody wants to be a test case," she said. "Nobody wants to be made an example of."