Q: I am the human resources manager for a lobbying firm and have a
question about our efforts to hire a senior House staffer. We recently extended
him an offer and are now trying to persuade him to accept it.
A longtime tradition of our firm is to hold a Founder’s House Weekend for
anyone to whom we offer a job. It is at the beach house of our firm’s founding
partner, and typically involves a lavish dinner in honor of the prospective
employee, who stays at the house. We would have liked to throw a Founder’s House
Weekend for this staffer but are concerned about the House gift rules. I gather
there is an exception for personal hospitality but that it doesn’t apply to
lobbyists. Therefore, I think we will have to take a pass on this tradition for
the House staffer. Is that right?
A: Whoa! Don’t cancel Founder’s House Weekend just yet. Sure, the
personal hospitality exception to the House prohibition upon gifts may not
apply. But don’t forget that there are more than 20 other exceptions. In fact,
there is one that could be right on point.
But before turning to those exceptions, the place to start is always the gift
prohibition itself. Under a House rule, a staffer may not accept any “gift,”
which the rule defines as a “gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment,
hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value.” The rule
provides several examples, including services, transportation, lodging and
meals. Under these definitions, an invitation to Founder’s House Weekend is
almost certainly a gift. This means that the staffer may not accept it unless an
exception applies. It also means that if an exception does not apply, proceeding
with Founder’s House Weekend could expose your firm and the founding partner to
sanctions. So, let’s look at the exceptions.
The exception you mention covers “personal hospitality.” Unfortunately, you
are right that the Founder’s House Weekend does not qualify. First, as you point
out, the exception does not apply to hospitality provided by a lobbyist. This is
not because the House thinks that the quality of hospitality provided by
lobbyists is unacceptably meager. Rather, the personal hospitality exception is
one of several places in the House rules where the restrictions on lobbyists are
heightened out of concern for the appearance of improper influence.
Second, even if your founding partner were not a lobbyist, the applicability
of the personal hospitality exception would still be in doubt. Under the rule,
personal hospitality means hospitality that is intended for a nonbusiness
purpose. Wooing a prospective employee might not qualify. Moreover, while you
don’t mention who typically pays for the weekend, note that, according to the
ethics manual, the exception does not apply where the host’s expenses are to be
reimbursed by the business, or deducted as business expenses.
Nevertheless, there is hope yet for Founder’s House Weekend. Consider the
exception for benefits provided in connection with employment discussions. This
exception applies to “food, refreshments, lodging, transportation, and other
benefits ... customarily provided by a prospective employer in connection with
bona fide employment discussions.” The idea behind the exception appears to be
that the gift rule should not deprive staffers who are seeking employment in the
private sector the same benefits enjoyed by other prospective employees.
The key requirement here is that the benefit must be “customarily provided by
a prospective employer.” Does this mean that the benefit must be one that a
typical employer customarily provides? Or, to qualify for the exception, is it
enough that the specific employer in question customarily provides the benefit
to prospective employees? These questions are critical because, while Founder’s
House Weekend has a long history at your firm, not every firm customarily
provides such a benefit to its prospective hires.
Fortunately, the Ethics Manual answers these questions favorably for you. The
manual includes an example involving employment discussions between a lobbying
firm and a House staffer during which the firm offers the staffer use of a beach
condo for a weekend. The manual states that the offer is not acceptable unless
the firm has a history of making the same offer to comparable prospects in the
private sector. Therefore, given that it is a longtime tradition of your firm to
hold a Founder’s House Weekend for any prospective employee, it should qualify.
One final note. Firms less scrupulous than yours might view this exception as
an opportunity to conduct bogus employment discussions merely as an excuse to
bestow gifts upon House Members and staffers. Don’t. The exception applies to
benefits in connection with bona fide employment discussions. Founder’s House
Weekend qualifies. Benefits in connection with sham discussions do not.
© Copyright 2008, Roll Call Inc. Reprinted with permission. Widely regarded
as the leading publication for Congressional news and information, Roll Call has
been the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. For more information, visit