It’s hard to decide which is the worst part of the House Ethics Committee’s report on member/staff travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, but I am going to go with the discussion of tangible gifts. At least it is easiest to explain why that part is wrong. I will discuss other aspects of the report in future posts.
As you may recall, a large number of members and staff traveled to a 2013 conference in Baku, courtesy of a rather shadowy group of Turkish American non-profit organizations. The travel was approved in advance by the Ethics Committee, but the approval letter explicitly warned each traveler about the possible receipt of gifts from foreign governments during the trip. Specifically, the letter noted that “[a]ny tangible gifts valued in excess of $350 received from a foreign government must, within 60 days of acceptance, be disclosed on a Form for Disclosing Gifts from Foreign Governments and either turned over to the Clerk of the House, or, with the written approval of the Committee, retained for official use.” Report at 20 n. 95.
During the trip, some if not all of the members (and perhaps some staffers too) received, among other things, “some combination of small and medium-sized rugs, tea sets, briefcases, CDs, DVDs, picture books, and scarves.” Report at 19-20. The report is rather opaque as to who got what.
According to some of the travelers, “the gifts were left in their hotel rooms with no indication of who provided them.” Report at 23. The evidence was unclear whether the gifts came from one of the non-profit organizations, the Azeri government, or some other source. Accordingly, the committee concludes that “some of the larger gifts, such as the rugs, tea sets, scarves, and jewelry would likely only be acceptable under one of the Gift Rules exceptions that require knowledge of the donor’s identity, and thus are not acceptable in this case.” Report at 24.
This statement implies that acceptance of these larger gifts might very well be permissible except for the technicality that the donor cannot be identified. But that is ridiculous. It is almost certain that some of these gifts, particularly the rugs, would have been impermissible from any donor. And the committee provides no evidence that any of the larger gifts would have been acceptable if the donor had been known.
If the donor was a foreign government, the rules would have clearly been violated if any of the gifts were valued at more than $350. If the donor was anyone else, the limits would have been much lower ($50) and would apply to the aggregate value of the gifts. Gifts from some sources (e.g., lobbyists or foreign agents) are prohibited even below that minimal value. Thus, for the acceptance and retention of the gifts to be even potentially permissible, none of the gifts could exceed $350 in value.
The committee report provides no estimate for the value of the gifts in question, and it does not discuss what the members believed the value of the gifts to be. It does mention, as part of the general discussion of gifts from foreign governments, that “[i]f a Member or employee is uncertain whether the value of a gift exceeds ‘minimal value,’ the Clerk’s office can arrange for an appraisal.” Report at 5. However, it omits any reference to media reports that Representative Bridenstine actually had the small and medium-sized rugs appraised at $2500 and $3500 respectively, far more than the minimal value applicable to foreign government gifts. Needless to say, if this is true, none of the members (except Bridenstine) who accepted the rugs were anywhere in the vicinity of reasonable compliance with the applicable laws and rules.
Leaving aside the specific valuation, one would think the committee would want to make clear how members should proceed when they are in a foreign country and multiple gifts of non-trivial value mysteriously show up in their hotel rooms. Despite having specifically been warned about receiving foreign gifts, none of the members except Bridenstine apparently disclosed the gifts, had them appraised, or consulted with the Clerk or other knowledgeable sources about their proper handling and disposition. These lapses were clearly inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the rules, but the committee by its silence leaves the impression that the members handled the gifts in an appropriate or defensible manner. The fact that the gifts turned out to be “not acceptable in this case” is presented as if it was a matter of bad luck not due to any fault on the part of the recipients.
As I have previously noted, I would give the Baku travelers the benefit of the doubt and assume that their actions reflected inattention, not deliberate misconduct. And I understand that if the committee had expressly rebuked the members, it would be reported in the most sensationalized way. (“Ethics Committee finds members guilty of accepting illegal gifts from secret foreign donors!”) But the committee’s job is to provide guidance and enforce discipline with regard to the House’s many rules of conduct. By overlooking or minimizing the blatant mishandling of foreign gifts here, the committee failed to do its job.