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November 23, 2014

Posts in "Davidson"

November 11, 2014

What Does a Gift Tag Have to Do With Breaking the Law? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I worked on the campaign of someone who has just been elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, and I expect to work for him in the House as well beginning in January. I recently met with some experienced staffers to learn the ins-and-outs of working on the Hill. One thing they filled me in on is how strict the gift limitations are, but what really stuck out was that the permissibility of a gift supposedly can depend somehow on the language of the tag or card that comes with it. I had trouble wrapping my head around this. Is this really true?

A. First, congratulations to you and your boss. Exciting times ahead.

As for your question: Yes, believe it or not, the language on a card attached to a gift can impact the legality of accepting it. In fact, some language on a gift tag could expose you and the donor to serious liability.

There are several sources of the limitations on gifts and other benefits members and staffers may receive, and it is important to consider them all any time you are offered a gift. One is the House gift rule. Broadly, the gift rule forbids you from accepting anything of value from anyone unless an exception applies. There is a long list of exceptions, including things such as gifts from family members, widely available opportunities and more. You should certainly familiarize yourself with the rule and the exceptions as you prepare for your job on the Hill.

But, complying with the law doesn’t end there. Just because a gift meets an exception to the House gift rule does not mean that it might not violate some other restriction. Bribery law, for example, criminalizes gifts given to influence an official act regardless of whether they might meet a gift rule exception.

The law that it sounds like the staffers you met with have in mind is a subsection of the federal bribery statute governing what have become known as “gratuities.” It provides that, as a government official, you may not accept anything of value given because of an official act you perform. Some have described it as a prohibition on a reward for an official act that has already been performed. The Supreme Court has said what makes a gratuity illegal is “a link between a thing of value and a specific official act for or because of which it was given.”

What does this have to do with gift tags? The House Ethics Manual has a few examples to illustrate.

Suppose you help introduce a bill, and you do so solely because you and your member believe it will be good for the country. Suppose also that there is a lawyer who favors the bill because it will benefit some of his clients. The lawyer sends you a small gift that meets one of the exceptions to the House gift rule, and attaches a note stating, “In appreciation for your good work on the bill.” According to the ethics manual, this would violate the ban on gratuities, and you would have to return the offering in question to the lawyer.

Another example involves a caseworker who helps a constituent with a Veterans’ Affairs claim. The following week, the constituent sends a modest restaurant gift certificate, with a note saying: “I’ll never be able to repay you for what you’ve done for me.” Again, the manual says this is an illegal gratuity and the caseworker must return it to the constituent.

In contrast, suppose during the holidays you receive a small gift from a lawyer that again meets one of the exceptions to the gift rules. This time, the gift tag says, “Season’s Greetings to you and peers!” Accepting this gift, the manual says, “is not prohibited by the bribery and illegal gratuity statutes.” This is because there is no apparent link between the gift and any official act.

Does any of this really matter? Yes.

Violations of the bribery and gratuity statues are federal crimes, and carry stiff penalties including fines and jail time. Several members who have been convicted of violations of the gratuity ban have gone to jail.

So, as you tackle all of the tasks that you and your member must accomplish to prepare for your time on the Hill, here’s one more to add to your to-do list. Learn the rules about gifts, bribery, and gratuities. They matter. And, some of them may surprise you.

C. Simon Davidson is an attorney with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to cdavidson@mcguirewoods.com. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.

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October 14, 2014

Are Members Permitted to Help Companies in Which They Own Stock? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I heard that Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., may face ethics discipline because he assisted companies in which he owned stock. I know that Members are not supposed to use their position for their own personal gain, but I didn’t realize that meant they are disqualified from taking action on behalf of any companies in which they might own stock. Is that really the rule?

A. No, it is not. A member’s mere ownership of stock in a company does not disqualify the member from taking official acts on the company’s behalf. But, as the Petri matter illustrates, members should take special care when they assist companies in which they happen to own stock. Exactly what that means, unfortunately, is less than clear.

In a report made public last month the Office of Congressional Ethics, which filters allegations of misconduct for review by the House Committee on Ethics, concluded there is substantial reason to believe Petri “improperly performed official acts on behalf of companies in which he had a financial interest.” The OCE therefore recommended further review by the House Committee on Ethics, which it is now considering.

There is no dispute that Petri took official acts for companies in which he owned stock. That is allowed. At issue in the Petri case is whether he did so “improperly.” That is not. Full story

December 10, 2013

The Year in Congressional Ethics | A Question of Ethics

A famous Tacitus quote about government corruption raises a chicken and egg question. One common translation is: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” But it is also sometimes cited as, “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the state.”

So, which is it? Does corruption beget laws? Or, do laws beget corruption?

Perhaps both are right. That might explain why, in an era of expanding legislation and regulation, government ethics always seems to be a hot issue. When this column began after the ethics boom of late 2006, government corruption dominated headlines and exit polls. Seven years later, the frenzy over government corruption may have calmed a bit. But, those years have added thousands of new laws and regulations to a sum that was already too large to count. If Tacitus is right, the ever-growing number of laws in this country could mean that government corruption is ever-growing, too, notwithstanding reformists’ efforts to nip around its edges.

A look back at the year in congressional ethics provides no shortage of support for Tacitus. I asked several top practitioners of political law to name the government ethics story of the year, and there are many.

Ken Gross, a former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, now of Skadden, cited Jesse L. Jackson Jr. as the saddest scandal of the year. In October, the former congressman was sentenced to more than two years in prison after pleading guilty to crimes that the judge described as using campaign funds as a “personal piggy bank.” His wife received a one-year sentence for her own role in the scandal. “Rising to the level of congressman and carrying the name of a famous civil rights leader proved to be too much,” Gross said, “ending in an inconceivable crash landing.”

Robert Walker, former chief counsel of the Senate Ethics Committee and now of Wiley Rein, added the Rick Renzi scandal to the year’s list of biggest stories. Over the summer, the former representative was convicted of 17 violations of federal criminal law, including extortion, bribery, insurance fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Three months later, he was sentenced to three years in prison. After the sentencing, prosecutor Mythili Raman said that Renzi “fleeced his own insurance company to fund his run for Congress, and then exploited his position for personal gain.” “Oh, how the — kind of — mighty are fallen,” Walker said.

Walker also cited another story for its significance “from a process point of view” — the confirmation of the Office of Congressional Ethics “as a fixture” in the ethics process. The OCE was created in 2008 to review allegations of misconduct by House employees to determine if they warrant further review by the House Ethics Committee. In the OCE’s early years, its relationship with the House Ethics Committee was not always smooth. Now, said Walker, “the OCE and the House Ethics Committee have arrived at a modus vivendi allowing them to exercise their overlapping — some might still say redundant — investigative authorities.”

Less than 60 years ago, there were no government entities specifically charged with considering allegations of misconduct by House employees. Today there are two.

Stefan Passantino of McKenna Long & Aldridge, who runs the Pay to Play Law Blog, agrees that improved process is the government ethics story of the year. In addition to the “growing acceptance by all of the role the OCE plays in the process,” Passantino cited the “workmanlike resolution of matters by the two ethics committees.”

But another story late in the year may put some of those developments in doubt. Last month, Dan Schwager left his post as chief counsel of the House Ethics Committee. Described by Walker as “an experienced professional and former prosecutor,” Schwager was widely respected in the field. If the lack of major public controversy is one measure of success of his job, Schwager’s two-and-a-half-year tenure was a successful one. His departure, Walker said, “could wind up being quite significant, depending on the direction the committee takes in hiring his successor.”

Indeed, as we look ahead to 2014, the filling of the chief counsel vacancy in the House Ethics Committee will be the story to watch. Yet, regardless who takes the job, government ethics is sure to remain as relevant as ever. Tacitus said so, however you translate him.

Correction: Dec. 11, 11:30 a.m.

A previous version of this article misstated the year of the ethics boom. It was 2006, not 1996.

October 29, 2013

Are Members of the House Allowed to Hire Relatives? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I have a question about a recent “60 Minutes” segment I saw about nepotism among members of Congress. As I understand the report, it said that there are some circumstances in which nepotism is legal. This confused me. As a former House staffer, I’m pretty sure members are not allowed to hire relatives to work in their offices. What’s the deal? May members of the House hire relatives to work for them?

A. Yes and no.

You are correct that federal law prohibits members from hiring relatives to work in their House offices. But no law prevents members from employing relatives for their election campaigns. Here’s why:

Federal law broadly forbids a government official, including a member of Congress, from hiring or promoting any “relative” to any agency over which the official exercises authority or control.  Someone counts as a relative of a member under this restriction if they are a “father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin, nephew, niece, husband, wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half brother, or half sister.”

Ever since 1967, when the anti-nepotism statute was enacted, it has been illegal for a member to hire or promote anyone meeting this definition. Full story

October 15, 2013

Keep Working While Furloughed? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I am a staffer for a member of the House. The government shutdown has caused most members’ offices to furlough staffers, and I am one of them. Unfortunately, there are a number of things I was working on before the shutdown, and I’d like to be able to make some progress on them while on furlough. I’m not being paid either way, so I figure I might as well be productive. The problem is that I’ve been told I’m not supposed to do any work while out. Is this really prohibited?

A. Answering this question reminds me of the type of thing I might tell my young children when using reverse psychology. “Do not do any work. Whatever you do, you may not do any work.”

Believe it or not, those are essentially the marching orders for staffers who have been furloughed. A general prohibition prevents all nonessential federal workers, including nonessential House staffers, from working while on furlough.

The House Administration Committee confirmed this in guidance recently issued to members. “If I furlough an employee, can he/she still come into work?” asks one question in the guidance. The answer? “No, if you have decided that an employee is non-essential, he/she cannot perform official duties, (either at the office or at home).”

There are several reasons for this. One is an old law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, which has its origins in 19th-century budget battles between the executive branch and Congress. Under the Constitution, no money may be drawn from the Treasury unless appropriated by Congress. This means that Congress generally has discretion over which government services to fund and how much to fund them.

During the 19th-century budget battles, executive branch departments would seek ways around the financial constraints of running out of funds appropriated to them. (Sound familiar?) One method was to allow employees to perform government services on a volunteer basis. When the volunteers later asked to be paid for their services, there would be a “deficiency” of funds. Congress would sometimes feel compelled to fill that deficiency so that the volunteers could receive retroactive payment for their services.

The Anti-Deficiency Act prohibits this practice. Specifically, it states that a federal official “may not accept voluntary services for either government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law except for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Federal officials have interpreted this to mean that when there is a lapse in appropriations for government services, they may not allow those services to continue on a volunteer basis.

Note that this doesn’t mean that all government services must shut down whenever there is a lapse in appropriations. As a 1995 memorandum by the Office of Management and Budget observed, the commonly used term “government shutdown” to refer to a lapse in appropriations is in fact an “entirely inaccurate description.” A true government shutdown, the memo states, would mean no air traffic control, FBI, customs services, border control, stock markets or VA hospitals, among other vital services. A “true shut down of the federal government,” the memo says, “would impose … incalculable amounts of suffering and loss.”

Thus, even during a lapse in appropriations, such as the current one, the Anti-Deficiency Act permits the continuation of certain essential services. The House has determined that the essential services of House staffers include those that are associated with constitutional responsibilities, the protection of human life or the protection of property. Each member must determine which of his or her staffers perform such duties. All others — that is, nonessential employees — must be placed on furlough.

Under the Anti-Deficiency Act, then, furloughed staffers may not perform their official duties on a volunteer basis while on furlough. The recent guidance by the House Administration Committee explains just how broad this prohibition is. For example, a member’s office “may not communicate with a furloughed employee about official duties and the furloughed employee may not perform official duties by email or telephone.” As a way to ensure compliance, the guidance suggests that a member’s office may even require furloughed staffers to turn in their cellphones, laptops and BlackBerrys.

One wonders whether even this is enough to comply. Keep in mind that, technically speaking, violations of the Anti-Deficiency act can be considered crimes, punishable by up to two years in jail. So, what if your mind strays and you start having productive thoughts about the projects you were working on before being furloughed? It seems that if you really want to make sure you don’t break the law against working while on furlough, merely turning in your cellphone and turning off your computer won’t do the trick.

Have you considered a lobotomy?

September 12, 2013

Friend of Jesse Jackson Jr. Responds

Ned Brown, a reader of Wednesday’s A Question of Ethics post on Jesse L. Jackson Jr., sent the following response, which raises the question of why some politicians break laws governing political conduct:

I read your [column] this afternoon coincidentally after having spent 2 hrs w Jesse this morning; he’s a close friend. On one hand, he is incredibly bright and gifted. On the other, he did something incredibly stupid and selfish. I still do not fully comprehend why, beyond narcissism, which just about every politician is guilty of.

I will add this about Jesse and his situation: he is truly sorry for the shame he brought on his family, his fellow members of Congress (who he considers extended family), and damaging the image of the institution. He is very direct that he wants to serve his time in a way that will make him a better person. And upon leaving the criminal justice system, he looks forward to devoting his future years and efforts to something worthwhile. While he is ashamed of what he did, Jesse hopes his future works will also be part of defining the mosaic of Jesse Jackson Jr’s life.

September 10, 2013

What Did Jesse Jackson Jr. Do Wrong?

Wage 001 060612 600x400 What Did Jesse Jackson Jr. Do Wrong?

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Q. I am a Hill staffer with a question about the jail sentence Jesse Jackson Jr. recently received for campaign finance violations. I didn’t follow his case closely, but, from what I understand about it, the jail sentence struck me as a bit harsh. It’s not like Jackson killed anyone, or even harmed someone.  And as a Hill staffer I know that campaign finance law can be very complicated, and because of that we are always worried about the possibility of inadvertent violations. What exactly did Jackson do that resulted in him going to jail?

A: On Aug. 14, 2013, at a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., once viewed by some as a rising political star, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for federal crimes to which he had pleaded guilty earlier this year. His wife, the mother of his two young children, was also sentenced to prison for a year for her role in the crimes. She had also pleaded guilty.

So what did Jackson do? Technically, he admitted to conspiring to commit wire and mail fraud and making false statements. In plain speak, he acknowledged defrauding his campaign of approximately $750,000. Full story

July 23, 2013

DOMA Ruling Could Expand Financial Disclosure | Davidson

Q. I have a question about your recent article on how House ethics rules could be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. I am in a same-sex marriage with a House staffer that the law recognizes in our state. My question concerns the financial disclosure forms my spouse must file each year with the House. I know that these forms generally ask for information concerning the filer and the filer’s spouse but that this has never applied to same-sex spouses. I am a private person and don’t like the idea of the public knowing about my financial affairs. While my spouse and I of course were elated about the Supreme Court decision, I am concerned that it might mean he must start including my information on his disclosure forms. Does it?

A. Another good question. The full consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding DOMA are still playing out and will likely continue to for quite some time. In this case, the potential consequences relate to the Ethics in Government Act, which requires members and some senior staffers to file annual financial disclosure forms with the Clerk of the House. The forms must be filed by all staffers who meet a certain pay grade, and it sounds like your spouse is just such a staffer. Full story

July 9, 2013

Does the DOMA Ruling Affect Ethics Rules? | Davidson

Q. I am a House staffer in a same-sex marriage, and I have a question about the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act upon House ethics rules. For example, the law firm my spouse works for hosts an annual retreat where attorneys’ spouses are invited to attend as well. But, as I understand the gift rules, it might violate the rules if I allowed the law firm to pay for my expenses to attend the event. While the rules allow staffers to have their expenses paid for at spouses’ events such as these, I have generally not qualified as a “spouse.” Does the DOMA ruling change things with respect to House ethics rules like this one?

A. Yes! The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act could certainly have implications under House ethics rules. The word “spouse” appears almost 150 times in the House Ethics Manual, and the Supreme Court’s decision could come into play almost every time it is mentioned, particularly for members and staffers in state-recognized same-sex marriages. Full story

June 18, 2013

The $33 Million Penalty for Lobbying Disclosure Violations | Davidson

Q. I am a lobbyist with a question about lobbying disclosure forms. Technically, I know am supposed to file these forms a few times each year, and I always do. But sometimes I wonder why I bother. I know of other lobbyists who often miss the deadline for filing their forms and some who don’t file them at all, and they never seem to face any consequences. Am I wasting my time by filing the forms? Or does the requirement to file them actually have teeth?

A. Does a $33 million penalty count as teeth? That’s how much a lobbying firm could face in fines in a lawsuit the government brought this month for lobbying disclosure violations. Full story

June 5, 2013

What Was the Basis for Ensign’s FEC Fines? | Davidson

Q. I have a question about the fines recently levied against former Sen. John Ensign and his parents by the Federal Election Commission. I thought that the FEC dropped its case against the Ensigns years ago. If that’s right, what changed between then and now that resulted in fines?

A. Your confusion is understandable. The investigations following Ensign’s extramarital affair with a former campaign staffer have taken many twists and turns over the years. And, while those investigations have of course subjected Ensign to legal costs and other burdens, last month was the first time that they resulted in an official penalty. Full story

May 14, 2013

Ethics Rules Bind Furloughed Staffers | Davidson

Q. I am chief of staff for a member of the House with a question about how House ethics rules might impact staffers on furlough. The recent sequester has cut budgets for members’ offices, and we are working through how to deal with the cuts. I am wondering whether the rules would allow staffers to do part-time work with their former law firms if they are placed on furlough. I know that conflict-of-interest rules prohibit staffers from doing some types of outside work, including legal work for clients. But, would this restriction apply to staffers on furlough? And, would it apply even if the staffers were to do purely administrative work and perform no legal services at a law firm?

A. Great questions. In fact, the House Ethics Committee recently issued a memorandum reminding members and staffers of laws and rules to consider when dealing with budget cuts required by the sequester, including the subject of your question: furloughs. Full story

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