Bush staff warned to be on best behavior

White House employees attend sessions on ethics, conduct before convention

The Republican Convention

August 29, 2004|By Jeff Zeleny | Jeff Zeleny,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - The White House has issued a stern warning to administration officials attending the Republican convention: Don't misbehave at all-night cocktail parties, steer clear of corporate skybox tickets to the Yankees game and politely say no thanks to a gift if it costs more than $20.

Lest they forget, the White House counsel printed a list of the top 10 rules on wallet-size cards and distributed them to scores of employees - from Cabinet officials to rank-and-file political appointees - before they arrived in New York City.

Not sure if you can attend a private Sotheby's tour of collectibles from Johnny Cash's estate or use a lobbyist's courtside seats to the U.S. Open? A telephone number for the counsel's office, where questions can be answered around the clock, is printed on the laminated cards.

Every moment of the national convention at Madison Square Garden will be scripted, down to which variety of Republican will speak in prime time. But even the revelry outside the hall comes with an instruction book. The guidelines, dispatched from the Oval Office, stop short of advising a curfew.

Before joining delegates, elected officials and corporate sponsors this weekend at the convention, the White House staff attended mandatory ethics briefings in Washington. For a room of senior administration officials, chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. played a network news broadcast from the Democratic convention showing elected officials and others partying into the night at corporate bashes.

"I do not want this to happen at our convention," Card sternly warned, according to an account from people in the room. The directive was clear: Don't embarrass the president, violate the ethics code or sully the administration's reputation.

Although the purpose of the four-day political gathering may be to nominate President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as the Republican ticket, much of the more pertinent business is conducted beyond convention boundaries. And White House employees and Cabinet officials are often the most sought-after dinner dates.

"The president expects his appointees to adhere to the highest ethical standards," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said in an interview.

The pocket-size guide - "Convention Reminders for White House Staff" - underscores the extent to which the administration is seeking to control the image of the executive branch.

The administration, Buchan said, was merely trying to make it easy for employees to follow guidelines set forth by the Office of Government Ethics.

In a list of instructions, staff members are instructed to "keep government and political activities separate." Government-issued cellular phones, the rules instruct, are not to be used for political activity.

White House employees may only attend a reception or dinner "if 200 or more people with a diversity of viewpoints are expected to attend," the guide says. Finally, officials are warned: "Never solicit a gift!"

"Some invitations are or are not appropriate," Buchan said. "If there is any question whether something is appropriate, there is a phone number to contact an ethics attorney."

In the ethics briefing sessions, the counsel's office told White House staff which party invitations to accept and which to shy away from. "They showed real-life examples of what raised flags," Buchan said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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