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October 03. 2013 8:28PM

Ethics panel decides free dinner for NH legislators is permissible

CONCORD — The Legislative Ethics Committee ruled this week that senators and key House members could accept invitations to a business organization’s annual dinner although ticket prices exceed the $25 limit on gifts to lawmakers.

All 24 senators, House leadership and some committee chairs and vice chairs were invited to attend the annual Business and Industry Association’s annual dinner Oct. 23 in Manchester.

House Ways and Means Chair Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, asked the Ethics Committee for an advisory opinion to determine if lawmakers could accept the free tickets that normally cost $125 per person.

While the committee agreed the lawmakers could attend the event, the carefully drawn opinion acknowledges the law is not clear nor offers much guidance.

In her letter to the committee, Almy noted the annual event “honors key people, business and other, around the state, this year being the NH Charitable Foundation, (former House Speaker) Donna Sytek and a rural industry in my county.”

The ethics committee sought more information from the BIA about the event. The organization’s secretary and volunteer legal counsel Brad Cook of Manchester wrote the committee that “the BIA routinely invites all members of the New Hampshire Senate to the annual dinner, in their official capacities and regardless of party or position on issues. It also invites the chairs of various House committees and leadership, regardless of party or position on issues, in their official capacities. Due to the size of the dinner location, and the size of the New Hampshire House, it is impossible to invite the entire House membership.”

In his letter to the committee, Cook states that the organization believes the dinner invitations would be exempt from the gift prohibition because it qualifies under an exemption for ceremonial events open to the public with an attendance over 50.

The invitations would also be exempt because the invitations are to lawmakers in their official capacities, as representatives of the state and not to win favor.

Also he stated, the dinner is a ceremonial event with many lawmakers invited, although he acknowledges it does not meet all the requirements for the exemption.

However, the ethics committee rejected two of the three reasons sited by Cook for an exemption allowing lawmakers to attend.

In the opinion written by Ethics Committee Chair Marty Gross, a Concord attorney, he wrote the question is if the invitations qualify for a specific exemption stated in the legislative ethics law.

He rejected the claim that the lawmakers could attend because they are acting in their official capacities or because it is a ceremonial event.
 
Earlier, the committee determined the Senate President and the House Speaker could attend the event because they would be representing the Senate and the House in their official capacity, but individual senators and representatives do not represent their bodies in any official capacity, he said.

Gross also noted the exemption for a ceremonial event requires that the proceeds of the event be reported as political contributions, or it is hosted by a charitable organization, or it is open to all members of the Senate and House.

“None of these additional requirements appear to be satisfied,” Gross wrote.

The only exemption available is if the dinner is ceremonial or celebratory, but those terms are not defined in the statute, he said.

Turning to dictionary definitions of the words, Gross noted the event is not ceremonial, but could be construed to be celebratory.

“BIA makes no secret that it is a preeminent lobbying organization,” Gross wrote. “Any effective lobbying effort includes cultivating cordial relationships with legislators. There is little doubt that its Annual Dinner invitations to legislators are part of that effort. If the BIA had no interest in legislation, there would be no point offering free admission to legislators. Clearly, one of the purposes of the Dinner and the free invitations is to advance BIA’s legislative agenda.”

But he notes, the celebratory exemption does not preclude such an event, but does require the event’s primary activity be celebratory.

Events should celebrate something other than the organization, its members or accomplishments, or legislators, legislative officers or staff, he writes.

“On the facts presented in Rep. Almy’s request and the BIA’s response, this criteria appears to be met. No BIA business is conducted at the dinner. The program appears to include no discussion of BIA’s own legislative positions or accomplishments, but more generally seeks to be ‘a celebration of business accomplishments in New Hampshire,’ publicly honoring not only leaders of business, but other community leaders and organizations as well,” Gross wrote.

As long as the primary focus of the dinner remains the same, he said, the invitations to lawmakers would be exempt from the gift limit.

The written opinion will appear in the Senate Calendar that is published Friday and in next week’s House Calendar.

grayno@unionleader.com


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