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October 05. 2013 3:43AM

Ethics challenge: Lavish dinners, but not big books

The Legislative Ethics Commission ruled last week that legislators could accept tickets (normally worth $125) to the Business and Industry Association's annual dinner later this month. It was the right ruling, which nonetheless raises further questions.

Attorney Marty Gross, chairman of the commission, astutely noted that the BIA offered the tickets in part for the purpose of "cultivating cordial relationships with the legislators." But he found that the ethics rules do allow legislators to attend dinners that are ceremonial or celebratory in nature, which the BIA event is. Thus, the tickets are allowed even though the whole point of offering them is to cozy up with lawmakers.

This points to a loophole, or at least a flaw, in the ethics rules. Those rules prohibit the receipt of gifts worth more than $25. The theory is that expensive gifts can be corrupting. But they allow tickets to events at which lobbyists get chummy with lawmakers. So a lobbyist cannot buy a senator a $30 lunch to discuss a specific bill for an hour, but can give him a free ticket to a $125, hours-long social event.

This seems backwards. Trinkets and lunches are less potentially corrupting than free entry into social events at which legislators are treated like minor royalty. Under current rules, a citizen cannot give a legislator a copy of "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson" ($40), but a trade organization can offer lavish dinners that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Legislators need to rethink these restrictions.


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