In his first months as Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy
accepted $5,900 worth of gifts from a longtime friend.
The problem is that the friend also happened to be a lobbyist for
a large farm cooperative, Sun-Diamond Growers of California, that
multimillion-dollar issues pending before Mr. Espy's department.
Did the gifts constitute illegal gratuities to a government
official? Or were they just innocent presents offered by an old
Today, the US Supreme Court will be asked to decide.
How the case is resolved will greatly affect how lobbyists do
business in the nation's capital.
Analysts say if Sun-Diamond wins it could usher in a new era of
lavish spending by special interest groups seeking to influence
government officials through gift-giving "friendships."
If it goes the other way, these analysts say, it would put the
ranks of K Street lawyers and their wealthy clients on notice that
even a ham sandwich offered with the wrong motive could land would-
Washington movers and shakers behind bars.
More important, the court's decision would give law-abiding
lobbyists and government officials much-needed guidance into when
gifts are proper and when they are illegal.
"Right now lobbyists function at their peril. They don't have a
bright line of demarcation," says Samuel Buffone, who filed a friend-
of-the-court brief for the American League of Lobbyists.
"I've been in Washington for 20 years and until this case I never
knew there was a gratuity statute - and many people still don't,"
says Elaine Acevedo, a former Washington lobbyist and past president
of the American League of Lobbyists.
Under federal law it is illegal to give anything of value to a
public official "for or because of any official act performed or to
be performed" by the official.
Government ethics regulations say officials may not accept a gift
valued at more than $20. In contrast, the gratuity statute (a
criminal law) has no minimum. Any gift of any value given to
influence official acts violates the law.
Such laws are important because to accept such a gift would place
the official in conflict of interest or at least raise the
of a conflict of interest.
Federal officials are required by law and ethics regulations to
maintain undivided loyalty to the nation rather than lobbyists and
other special interests seeking to curry favor or gain special
David Vladeck of the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington
has monitored lobbying for many years. He says much of the activity
is based on human nature and the lobbyists' desire to be as
"They give the gift because they believe it helps them gain
access. Why do they want access, because they have issues that are
of vital economic concern to their clients," he says. "The point of
the gift is to pave the road, to get the ear of the decisionmaker."
Plugging the gift pipeline
Some Washington watchdog groups say they favor a ban on all gifts. …