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A current loophole in House ethics rules is so wide that a lobbyist working for a public college or university can throw a bow on a sporty Cadillac or a golfing trip to Europe and hand it over to a member of Congress. The lawmaker wouldn’t be breaking any rules or the law by accepting it, and no one would ever have to know, as long as the gift is paid for by a public higher-education institution with ties to the local, state, or federal government. The gift exemption for public colleges and universities is part of the new House ethics package that bans privately funded travel and gift-giving. The gift exemption has been in place for a number of years, and public universities simply asked to keep it, says Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which, along with other watchdog groups, is in favor of closing the loophole. “The idea of buying a lawmaker a luxury car — or maybe a small yacht — might seem a bit far-fetched to the lobbyists who represent public universities. They say that although it’s technically legal, it’s not likely to happen. “Though I don’t think it’s going to happen in reality, in very literal reading of the rules, you can make a case that universities that are public can do just about anything with respect to gratuities to members of Congress,” says Tim Peckinpaugh, a lobbyist at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis. “Providing lavish entertainment or travel would not be appropriate, but under the rules, it would be technically legal. But nothing has ever happened and it’s not going to happen.” Peckinpaugh, who, according to Senate records, has lobbied for Washington State University and Central Washington University on appropriations issues, says he advises his clients to avoid exploiting the loophole with extravagant gifts. The convictions of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff prompted Democrats to push for stricter ethics rules, passed in January, that would help draw the line between lobbyist and lawmaker by restricting most travel and gifts paid for by lobbyists. The Senate banned gifts, meals, and most travel funded by lobbyists, and the rules require senators to attach their names to earmarks and other projects. Unlike the House, it left no wiggle room for the hundreds of universities that seek funding each year. But under the House rules, public colleges and universities are exempt from travel and gift bans, which means that they are free to pay for lawmakers’ travel to campus or anywhere else and free to give gifts of any amount without having to report any of that activity. With no oversight over public universities, watchdog groups such as Americans for Prosperity are worried that the schools may take advantage of the exemption when trying to win earmarks and other funding to support research. “Because there are no reporting requirements, we won’t even know what is being given to these lawmakers funded by taxpayer dollars,” says Annie Patnaude, director of media relations at Americans for Prosperity. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has introduced legislation that would include public universities and colleges in current gift and travel restrictions. But the measure, which is slated to be discussed in the coming weeks, has little support, says spokesman Matthew Specht. The lack of support could be due to the fact that members of Congress have long enjoyed touring college campuses and attending sporting events free of charge. During the University of Florida’s championship 2006 football season, lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Florida Reps. Michael Bilirakis (R) and Clifford Stearns (R), sat in the university president’s box free of charge and were given free food and drinks, says Steven Orlando, University of Florida spokesman. “We’ll keep allowing them to sit in the president’s box for free as long as the rules say we can,” he says. Last year the university received about $324.4 million in federal funding for areas such as student aid and research programs. Yet the loophole only applies to public colleges and universities. Private universities and colleges can pay for lawmakers’ travel, but these trips must be pre-approved by the House Ethics Committee and the travel details must be disclosed. When it comes to the gift exemption, private universities aren’t making that much noise about it yet. “I would hope that the exemption wouldn’t affect funding for private schools,” says Jeff Vincent, executive director of Vanderbilt University’s D.C. office. “I think we can make a very strong case that research funding is important without helping members of Congress travel or giving them gifts.” Last year, Vanderbilt, a private university in Nashville, Tenn., spent $220,000 on lobbying and received nearly $350 million in federal funds for student grants and science and technology research grants, among other projects. Vincent adds, “The fact that public universities have an edge in some of their lobbying capabilities is just something that we’re willing to accept under the assumption that members of Congress will deal with the issue at some point.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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