O's fans in Capitol may lose free seats New rules limit gifts from lobbyists

February 16, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The end may be near for one of the most popular rites of spring on Capitol Hill: baseball and the O's, courtesy of lobbyists with season tickets to Camden Yards.

Thanks to a newly passed ban on gifts to members of Congress, lawmakers and staff members who want to be taken out to the old ball game this year probably will have to pay their own way.

"We're all wearing black armbands," said Timothy Lynch, chief lobbyist for the American Trucking Association.

Camden Yards is such a hot spot for lobbyist entertainment that the choicest sections are said to bear a striking resemblance to Washington's K Street corridor, where many of the top firms and trade associations are located. One-third of the Orioles 27,500 season ticket-holders come from the Washington area.

Each spring, with the regularity of crocuses and robins, offers of free tickets show up in congressional offices. Often, a lawmaker is invited to join a lobbyist for the outing. Tickets sometimes are passed to whole state delegations when their home team plays in Baltimore.

"It's a bonding thing," said David J. Pratt, chief lobbyist for the American Insurance Association. "If you take someone out for a social experience, you don't talk to them about technical stuff. But later in Washington you can say something like, 'Wasn't it great to see Cal Ripken break the record?' "

Often, the lobbyist doesn't go along, enabling lawmakers or their aides to take families instead.

Now, with the new rules -- including a $50 limit on meals and gifts for senators and staff, and a total ban on such favors in the House -- freebies along the first-base line are likely to be a thing of the past. Even though senators can still accept a $22 baseball ticket, many are following the stricter House rules voluntarily.

"It's going to change lifestyles on the Hill big time," said Tom Korologos, a veteran lobbyist who counts Major League Baseball among his clients. Mr. Korologos, who patrols the hallways outside the Senate chamber, said he's often approached by lawmakers looking to play hooky at the ballpark on a slow day.

"This is an OPM town: Other People's Money," he said. "It's been that way ever since I've been here. Nobody ever pays for a damn thing, except for me."

It's not clear, though, whether the culture of Washington will truly change or whether the town already has shed so much of its old wining-and-dining ways that the baseball freebies are little more than a relic.

The new House rules, Mr. Pratt said, prompted his group to give up its four season tickets to the Orioles this year because they were used mostly for congressional entertainment. But most lobbying firms and trade associations holding seats at Camden Yards are not ready to relinquish them.

There's been no drop in season-ticket sales this year, and the turnover of seat ownership is about the same as in previous years -- 4 percent or 5 percent, according to an Orioles vice president, Joe Foss.

Not surprisingly, many lobbyists are seeking loopholes. One possibility is to use the Oriole tickets as a campaign contribution, said Frederick Graefe, a lobbyist whose firm of Baker, Hostetler holds a block of seats. Political fund-raising events already are common at the stadium.

Another option is to invite lawmakers or aides, then ask them to pay for the tickets, the benefit being that good seats on short notice are at a premium at Camden Yards, which is usually sold out.

But these approaches might raise red flags, said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who serves on the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which is grappling with how the rules should be applied.

For example, if a lobbyist offered to sell tickets to a special event such as Opening Day only to members of Congress, that would be a gift, Mr. Cardin said, because such tickets are hard to come by.

The House ethics committee also is trying to decide whether it is acceptable for a lawmaker to pay the $22 or so face value for a sky box seat, since those boxes come with many other amenities, such as food and drinks.

As gift rules tighten, there seems to be more distress in the lobbyist community than among their intended beneficiaries.

With the exception of the House "Golf Caucus," which is broken-hearted about losing its battle to allow lawmakers to accept free trips to participate in charity golf events, most on the Hill are putting up a brave front.

They say they can afford to buy their own baseball tickets, are better off without heavy restaurant meals and would rather use their little free time to be home with their families than partying with favor-seeking lobbyists.

"I don't think the gift ban is going to make that much of a change," said Joseph Crapa, a veteran Hill staff member who worked as a Carter administration official and corporate lobbyist before signing on as top aide to Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin. "The culture here has already changed; it's just the lobbyists who are having trouble figuring that out."

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