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Lobbyist’s Invitation Raises Ethical Issue

            Via Election Law Blog and Political Activity Law comes this story from The Washington Times:  Senator Diane Feinstein cancelled a fundraiser after the lobbyist hosting it sent out an invitation using the Senator’s committee assignments as the theme for the event’s meal: 

Washington lobbyist Heather Podesta mentioned the intelligence committee in an e-mail invitation attached to a formal notice of the event, saying that the lunch at the upscale Charlie Palmer steakhouse in Washington would begin at noon. In the e-mail, she said donors who gave between $1,000 and $2,500 could order up “the Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course.”  

With a check “payable to Feinstein for Senate,” the e-mail said other courses include “your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary or Rules committees,” other panels on which she serves. 

What caught my eye from the article was this comment from Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW.  Sloan is quoted as calling the invitation “audacious, but legal.”  She goes on to say: “By correlating a fixed-price menu with Sen. Feinstein’s committee assignments, Podesta does what most of Washington assiduously seeks to avoid — makes clear that members of Congress are for sale.”  

Now Podesta’s invitation clearly showed bad judgment and illustrates the kind of behavior that ethical lobbyists should strive to avoid.  To say that the invitation “makes clear” that Senator Feinstein is “for sale,” however, goes a bit far.  A more charitable explanation is that the invitation was intended as a humorous way of conveying the Senator’s committee assignments.  No doubt this was for the benefit of invitees with an interest in matters before those committees, but this is still a long way from suggesting that either the Senator or the committees are for sale.   

It should be noted that lobbyists, at least those who are lawyers (as Podesta is), have ethical obligations that go beyond what is merely “legal.”  If Sloan’s interpretation of the invitation were correct, it would seem that Podesta would have violated Rule 8.4 of the D.C. Bar Rules of Professional Conduct.  This rule provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “state or imply an ability to influence improperly a government agency or official.”   

It is a worthwhile caution for all lawyer-lobbyists to remember this rule, and to refrain from comments that can be interpreted as claiming an ability to improperly influence Members of Congress.

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