Government Ethics: With the 115th Edition of the World Series Coming to Nationals Park in the Nation’s Capital, Here are Some Reminders so You Don’t Strike Out on Ethics!

Friday, October 25, 2019

With the Washington Nationals bringing the World Series to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933, there is no doubt that scores of Members of Congress and staffers who are actively working their Rolodex to secure tickets to games 3, 4, and 5. If you’re one of these people and subject to campaign-finance laws and/or gift rules, what better time to remind you of a few rules so you don’t strike out on ethics?

Buying Your Way In

If you’re a Member sitting on a million of bucks in your campaign committee or leadership PAC, you might experience a moment of temporary insanity and consider using these funds to purchase World Series tickets. Don’t! Federal campaign-finance laws prohibit the use of these funds for admission into a sporting event, concert, theater, or other form of entertainment unless the purchase is part of a specific campaign or officeholder activity (e.g., purchasing a box to hold a fundraiser).

The Gift of World Series Tickets

This should not take a reminder, but let’s start with the basics: Never solicit or accept gifts in exchange for official action.

But even in the absence of outright bribery, Members and staffers have to remember that federal law also regulates the acceptance of gifts that are offered to them. For example, Members and staffers are outright prohibited from accepting gifts from registered lobbyists, and a similar prohibition has been extended to Executive Branch appointees and employees by executive order.

Federal ethics rules consider “gifts” to be anything of value provided without remuneration. This definition is interpreted broadly, which means that almost all complimentary tickets to sporting events will be considered gifts (and while it’s true that items of de minimis value are not considered gifts, we don’t recommend trying to argue that the “standing room only” tickets in Nationals Park have a de minimis value).

A gift, including a free ticket to a sporting or recreational event, is permissible if its value is below the one-time limit and the aggregate limit. For Members and staffers, those limits are:

  • One-time limit = $49.99 per gift
  • Aggregate limit = $99.99 per year, per source

And it’s worth nothing that executive branch appointees and staff are subject to lower limits:

  • One-time limit = $20.00 per gift
  • Aggregate limit = $50.00 per year, per source

When the value of the gift exceeds these thresholds, you’ll have to identify another exception to the gifts rule before you can legally accept it. Some of the commonly used exceptions include:

  • “Widely Attended” Events: While the rules for accepting gifts of attendance at widely attended events are complex, events that are solely for sporting, recreational, or entertainment purposes do not meet the requirements of the “widely attended” exception to the gifts rules of the House, Senate, and Executive Branch. In other words, don’t try arguing that the World Series is a “widely attended” event under the gifts rule exception.
  • Gifts Between Colleagues. Members of Congress may generally give each other gifts, including tickets to sporting events. Therefore, if you’re a Member of Congress, now may be an opportune time to cozy up to a rich Member on the other side of the aisle. It’s worth nothing, however, that this exception does not extend to gifts from Members to officials of the Executive Branch.
  • Campaign Fundraisers: Members, staffers, and appointees participating in the establishment, management, or direction of political committees may accept free attendance and other benefits in furtherance of such purposes (including complimentary attendance at events provided by a political organization).
  • Outside Employment Relationships: Members and staffers may accept gifts resulting from the outside business or employment activities of the official or their spouse when it is clear, based on the circumstances, that the gifts result from such outside activities (i.e., not from the official’s status with the federal government).
  • Charity Events: Federal officials (and their immediate family members) may accept an unsolicited offer of free attendance from the sponsor of a charity event, including an event built around a sporting event. Although organizations that put on charitable fundraisers may designate groups underwriting the event as “sponsors” in their invitations and promotional materials, an individual or company does not become a “sponsor” under the gifts rule merely by donating goods or money for, or purchasing ticket to, the event.

Of course, when Members and staffers are given tickets that would violate the gift rules, they can return the tickets or pay the market value for them. The market value of a ticket is its face value (and when there isn’t a face value listed on the ticket, the recipient must pay the cost of the highest individually priced ticket for the event or seek approval from the relevant oversight authority for the cost).