Friday, August 22, 2008, 4:31 PM

Political GPS: Last-Minute Guide to Partying at the Presidential Nominating Conventions

If you’ve ever planned a big wedding, imagine if every detail – the invitations, the food, the drinks, the band, even the folks who will offer a few words at the microphone – had to be approved by your lawyer.

Welcome to Presidential convention parties, 2008 style. Thanks to a new federal ethics law passed by Congress in 2007, the House and the Senate each have a rule that prohibits certain convention events. Now, a company or trade association that employs or hires federal lobbyists may not pay for a party that “honors” a Member of Congress. For months, aspiring hosts have been tied in knots trying to figure out exactly what that means. Concern over legal restrictions has even led some companies to give up altogether on the idea of hosting an event.

As event planners pour over last-minute details and party hosts begin to look forward to the day it’s all over, here are some last-minute reminders to help you be sure that your event is federally-compliant:
  • Invitations and Publicity: The House of Representatives, unlike the Senate, says that it’s okay for party sponsors to “honor” a group of people – the Nevada Congressional delegation, for example – that is comprised entirely of Members of Congress. The catch is that invitations and publicity for convention events may not mention a House Member by name or give the Member a title, such as “special guest.”
  • Event Speakers: In this area, the House and Senate interpret the law differently. The House says that giving a Member an exclusive speaking or “very prominent” ceremonial role is equivalent to honoring that Member. In other words, no employer of lobbyists may pay for such events. The Senate is less strict on this point, saying that honoring a Member does not include having a Senator as a “featured speaker.”
  • Giving Your Money to Someone Else: You may be tempted to get into the game with a last-minute donation to an organization that does not employ or hire lobbyists, and let them pay for an event or gift item. If you donate the money to a non-lobbyist entity, such as the host committee or a non-profit, you are still violating the law if your organization employs or hires lobbyists and you earmark the funds for an event honoring a Member.
  • Beware the Congressional Gift Rules: There is such a preoccupation with the new convention event rule that some people forget that any event (or any item of value) still has to pass muster with Congressional gift rules. So, if food and drinks are served at the event, the event has to fit within one of the gift rule exceptions, such as those covering receptions and widely-attended events.
  • State Officials: If state officials will be attending your party or receiving some item of value, be sure that state gift rules are satisfied. The Democratic Convention poses a special challenge. Amendment 41 to the Colorado Constitution prohibits professional lobbyists from knowingly paying for any meal, beverage or other item to be consumed by a public officer (a term which includes Colorado elected officials). This recent amendment was upheld by the state courts, but the new Independent Ethics Commission has yet to offer any substantive guidance. Until they do, a “drinks and finger food” event might satisfy the Congressional “reception” exception, but could still get the company and the state official in hot water.
  • Fundraisers: Most fundraising events fall outside the new ethics rules, but must still comply with campaign finance laws. A previous Political GPS post addressed the concept of corporate facilitation. In short, no employees should be collecting contribution checks. Company employees may be asked to work on the event, but only if the company receives advance payment from the campaign committee for the market value of such services, including compensation, benefits and overhead. The company must also receive advance payment for catering and food services, as well as use of its customer lists.

We hope everyone sponsoring or attending convention events has a good time. You’ve certainly earned it!

The Wild, Wild (Mid) West: Missouri Contribution Limits Repealed

Effective August 28, 2008, there will be no limits on campaign contributions in Missouri state elections. The State’s repeal of its current limits applies to candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor, attorney general, judges, and state legislators.

While the limits are gone, the “Show Me State” is demanding greater transparency. Any person or entity required under the law to file campaign disclosure reports must electronically report contributions exceeding $5000 within 48 hours of receipt. Late filers or those who file reports containing errors face penalties equal to the amount of the contribution.

In July 2007, the State Supreme Court struck down a previous attempt to repeal the limits, but that ruling was based on procedural grounds. Though short-lived, Missouri voters got a glimpse of what campaigns will be like under the new regime. Governor Blunt twice raised more than $1 million in a single day.

The Buffet Table is Now Open: North Carolina Amends Ethics & Lobbying Law

North Carolina Governor Mike Easley signed H.B. 2542 on August 15, which made “clarifying changes” to the state’s lobbying and ethics laws. Among other things, the new law loosens the restrictions relating to when public officials can accept food and beverages from lobbyists. Under prior law, food and beverages could only be accepted at certain public events and other events related to the official’s position. Now, officials can eat and drink at open meetings of public bodies, and certain events sponsored by corporations and other organizations which are open to the public or a large number of invitees.

Jim Kahl to Speak at ASAE’s 2008 Annual Association Law Symposium

Jim Kahl will be a panelist addressing “Lobbying, Ethics & Campaign Finance Reform: Challenges & Opportunities in an Election Year,” as a part of the Annual Association Law Symposium sponsored by ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. The event will be held on Friday, September 19, 2008, at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. from 8 AM to 5:30 PM. You can see Jim’s panel at 10:45 AM. For more information, click here.

Next Posting

Political GPS will take some time off and return after the conventions. Enjoy the rest of summer!

If you have any questions or would like more information, please feel free to contact Larry (LNorton@wcsr.com, (202) 857-4429) or Jim (JKahl@wcsr.com, (202) 857-4417).

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