TLP: Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Convenient Way to Do Some Political Schmoozing
HuffPo is blowing smoke in the eyes of a congressional networking group that the blog contends is backed by lobbyists, possibly in violation of congressional rules. Tough to get your maduro lit when you poke around like that.
Lobbyists for major banks, insurers, pharmaceutical firms, energy companies and at least one foreign government have been helping organize lavish gatherings of staffers and members of Congress since early 2009, funneling K Street money through an officially chartered staff organization called the Congressional Cigar Association.OK, so maybe the set-up is a little sketchy. Things can get that way when cigars are involved. Coughcough. Wouldn't it clear the air if the lobbyists just made this a private group and held their own events?
The CCA, founded by Republican staffers and sponsored by Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), is chartered by the House Administration Committee to encourage networking among congressional staff. Its most recent gathering was held Tuesday at a townhouse just steps from the Capitol, where staffers were feted by Miami Cigar & Company.
As evening fell, guests lounged in the garden out back, sipping cold drinks and puffing away on what smelled like high-end cigars. Gary Pesh, owner of Old Virginia Tobacco and a member of the Congressional Cigar Association, said the event is just an excuse to "get together and have fun." When asked about the conflict of interest inherent in allowing lobbyists to fund a congressional staff organization, dozens of attendees just continued wordlessly on up the red brick steps. "This is approved by the House, so we're good," one staffer said. (Another staffer told HuffPost that filming wasn't allowed, though she was standing under a sign warning passersby that the area was under video surveillance.)
At least half a dozen lobbyists have been closely involved in the operation of the ostensibly staff-driven organization, a review of emails, documents and lobbyist disclosure reports finds. By helping to fund and organize the group's activities, K Street lobby shops are given privileged access to senior-level staffers and members of Congress in intimate settings where they lobby on behalf of their clients. The association is overwhelmingly Republican, as is the cigar-smoking habit it is organized around.
The cigar group is run by a six-member board. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, congressional ethics rules were implemented to require that "all officers must be employees of the House or Senate" and that the ethics committee approve all gifts of monetary value offered to the association. Meanwhile, federal law forbids staffers from soliciting gifts to it. Yet three of the board members running the cigar group are lobbyists, including the lead organizer of several exclusive events. Trade associations subsidize the group's events.
And if they want to get away from the prying eyes of the HuffPo, I know a bench outside a hotel in Dallas that's perfect for that sort of thing. You can even bring your drink.