When a Ham Sandwich Becomes a Bribe High Court Hears Gift-Giving Case That May Reshape How Washingtonlobbyists Work. Series: Lonnie Taylor, a US Chamber of Commerce Lobbyist (Right), Talked with Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia Last Fall. the High Court Hears Arguments on Gift Giving by Lobbyists Today. BY KHUE BUI/AP

Article excerpt

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 has 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 college chum? 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- be 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. Influencing lawmakers? 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 appearance 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 access. 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 effective as possible. "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. …