Reports about the “Congressional Cigar Association,” an organization that reportedly includes both Congressional staffers and former staffers who are now lobbyists, with cigars donated to the group by lobbying entities, draws questions about whether or not the group should be accepting, or allowed to accept, such gifts under the House gift rules.
The Huffington Post reported on a meeting of the CCA recently and called the group a “front” for lobbyists.
Is the CCA, its membership, or groups sponsoring the events stepping over the line? Let’s look first at gift rules, and second at social engagements.
1. Gift rules: No lobbyist or lobbying entity may provide any thing of value (including small items, such as cigars), without a specific exemption. If the groups sponsoring the events are registered to lobby, they may not provide anything of value to Congressional staffers unless such gifts fall under an exemption. According to the CCA, they have cleared their events with the ethics committee. See here for definition of “lobbyist.”
2. Social engagements. If lobbying entities are sponsoring these events, under the exemption of a “widely-attended event,” they must fall under a category of a widely-attended event. At such an event, Congressional staffers or members may accept entertainment, offered to all guests, presumably including the entertainment of smoking a cigar. However, premium “entertainment” is not necessarily covered.)
A widely-attended event is defined as: “One of the exceptions to the Gift Rules of the House and Senate. Organizations employing lobbyists may sponsor a widely attended event which must contain a diverse audience of more than 25 people and must be related to a Member’s or staffer’s official duties in order for a Member or staffer to attend for free.”
It is impossible to make a judgment on the appropriateness or legality of the CCA’s events and sponsorship without knowing more information on the fees and dues provided by members to the organization, the structure of their events, and the sponsoring entities.
That being said, it doesn’t look extremely good to hold such closed-door events as the one “crashed” by the Huffington Post. It creates an appearance (even if that wasn’t the intent) of access to staffers being bought by cigars. A better method of advocacy for the groups sponsoring such events might be to bring in citizen advocates to lobby their members of Congress on behalf of district-based efforts.
(And since we suggested that, here’s a plug for our upcoming audioconference: “Lobby Days & Fly-Ins: Time and Money-Saving Tactics for Managing the Unmanagable,” with the outstanding Stephanie Vance.)