Sunday, January 01, 2006

How can I buy thee... let me count the ways...

In yet one more potential Congressional scandal unfolding today the Washington Post reports that "Hill Gift Limits Often Exceeded, Lobbyists' Records Show."

"More than 80 lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides are listed as having accepted entertainment from lobbyists for BellSouth Corp. at levels that appear to exceed congressional gift limits, according to a document produced by the company's Washington office.

The document, which was obtained from an employee of the telecommunications firm who said she was disturbed by the pattern, sheds light on one of the capital's worst-kept secrets: Congressional gift restrictions are frequently ignored."

"The gift rules have been broken steadily for a long time despite strong efforts by corporations to stay within the limits," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, an education group for lobbyists. Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, agreed: "If you call that an abuse, it probably is the biggest one."

The Federal Election Commission along with watchdog groups such as Opensecrets report on contributions and expenditures but you'll be hard pressed to find information on gifts, entertainment, and meals... within or exceeding regulations.

The BellSouth document, which does not appear to be available online, is described as a 21 page, color-coded spreadsheet with highlighted names of lawmakers and their staff that have exceeded the limits from BellSouth.

According to BellSouth:
Gift regulations "govern the conduct of Members and staff and do not apply to companies such as BellSouth," it said. Still, the company said, the document was created "to assist our employees' understanding of congressional gift rules and to increase their awareness of expenditures associated with members and staff that may fall under those rules."

The document was produced after a draft internal audit prepared in June 2004 warned: "BellSouth D.C. employee expenses related to lobbying activities are not always adequately controlled. Exceeding allowable gift and gratuity limits set forth in federal laws and regulations could lead to unfavorable publicity related to BellSouth D.C.'s lobbying efforts."

With a one time gift limit set at $49.99 and a yearly limit of $99.90 it is easy to see how these might be exceeded. A single dinner with drinks at a downtown Washington restaurant could easily surpass the $49.99 limit. Add to that an outing at a local golf course and the $99.90 limit is exceeded as well. The article quotes several people involved and one of the defenses is that friendly relationships develop and some of these outings are between friends and not business. Another defense is that the staff involved work dual roles as congressional staff and campaign staff.

This article, along with the long and detailed reporting on the Jack Abramoff-Grover Norquist-Tom Delay scandal, show clearly how campaign and congressional requirements for reporting financial arrangements are insufficient to the task. Gifts, dining, entertainment, money and jobs funneling through not just elected officials and lobbyists but their family members and staff are largely unreported and uncontrolled. The reported money is just the tip of the iceberg. Influence peddling and buying happens through many avenues.

Of particular interest in this article is the attitude of BellSouth that the regulations govern the conduct of members and their staff but not corporations and their lobbyists. In their own internal audit that precipitated the drafting of this document the concern seems to be with potential bad publicity (guess what folks... it's here) not with potentially unethical or illegal conduct.

Similarly the attitudes expressed by the Public Affairs Council, the American League of Lobbyists, and the reporters themselves that this is just business as usual reminds me of similar reports of such behavior in New York State government. Lobbyists and their money rule the capital.

There are plenty of rationalizations but no excuses for this sort of behavior on the part of our elected officials, their staff and families, or the corporations and lobbyists. "Everyone does it and they always have" is no excuse.

One very simple rule of thumb permeates all business ethics classes "when in doubt... report it."


jayDean said...

Andrew C. White, thank you for your blog that is both intelligent and inspiring, and for the way you translate thought into action.

Andrew C. White said...

jaydean! You found me. Thank you, that is very kind of you. I'm just trying to do my part. No one of us alone can change Washington but each of us getting active and doing what we can where we are with what we have can change the entire world.