Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cigar association for congressional staffers is a GOP lobbying front

There is not much more I can say about this story, except....WOW! From the Huffington Post:

Lobbyists for major banks, insurers, pharmaceutical firms, energy companies and at least one foreign government have been helping organize lavish gatherings of staffers and members of Congress since early 2009, funneling K Street money through an officially chartered staff organization called the Congressional Cigar Association.

The CCA, founded by Republican staffers and sponsored by Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), is chartered by the House Administration Committee to encourage networking among congressional staff. Its most recent gathering was held Tuesday at a townhouse just steps from the Capitol, where staffers were feted by Miami Cigar & Company.

As evening fell, guests lounged in the garden out back, sipping cold drinks and puffing away on what smelled like high-end cigars. Gary Pesh, owner of Old Virginia Tobacco and a member of the Congressional Cigar Association, said the event is just an excuse to "get together and have fun." When asked about the conflict of interest inherent in allowing lobbyists to fund a congressional staff organization, dozens of attendees just continued wordlessly on up the red brick steps. "This is approved by the House, so we're good," one staffer said. (Another staffer told HuffPost that filming wasn't allowed, though she was standing under a sign warning passersby that the area was under video surveillance.)

At least half a dozen lobbyists have been closely involved in the operation of the ostensibly staff-driven organization, a review of emails, documents and lobbyist disclosure reports finds. By helping to fund and organize the group's activities, K Street lobby shops are given privileged access to senior-level staffers and members of Congress in intimate settings where they lobby on behalf of their clients. The association is overwhelmingly Republican, as is the cigar-smoking habit it is organized around.

The cigar group is run by a six-member board. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, congressional ethics rules were implemented to require that "all officers must be employees of the House or Senate" and that the ethics committee approve all gifts of monetary value offered to the association. Meanwhile, federal law forbids staffers from soliciting gifts to it. Yet three of the board members running the cigar group are lobbyists, including the lead organizer of several exclusive events. Trade associations subsidize the group's events.

"On the face of it, while its not the great train robbery, it clearly implicates House rules that prohibit taking gifts from lobbyists," said Stan Brand, a congressional ethics attorney, when told of the group's activities. "The prohibition is a flat prohibition. The staff can get together and do whatever they want. But when it's underwritten by lobbyists it's gonna fly in the teeth of the rules."

Spokespersons for the House and Senate ethics committees, as well as the House Administration Committee, said they were unable to speak on the record. A spokesman to Bilbray said that the congressman has had little interaction with the group since its 2009 founding and that it is the organization's responsibility to make sure it behaves within House and Senate rules.

Here is the YouTube story by HuffPost:

In another sense, I'm actually not surprised at this type of corruption within the Republican Party. We've seen some of this corruption with Tom DeLay, the Jack Abramoff scandal, the K Street Project, U.S. Attorney firings, and the dozens of scandals from the Bush administration. And let us not forget the strange, secret, religious organization known as The Family, which was linked to several sex scandals of prominent Republican congressmen. Why should I also not be surprised that Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) is financing a little cigar smoking get-together between GOP staffers and lobbyists? It is just another example of just how corrupt the Republican Party has become.


nunya said...

And Bilbray proves once again that he's about as useful as teats on a boar.

Eric A Hopp said...

In one sense, why should I be surprised? The more I watch the Republican Party, the more I come to realize that the GOP cannot govern this country for the good of its people. The only thing the Republican Party is good for is getting themselves elected into government, and then screwing the country for the benefit of the ubber-rich, or big corporate interests. Never mind if the country is going down to Hell in a handbasket. This little cigar association is just another way for (illegal) introductory networking between upcoming GOP staffers and the big corporate interests.