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In D.C., Abramoff scandal cools free lunches

Suddenly, skyboxes are empty, "fact-finding" trips have been canceled and senators, congressmen and their aides now are insisting on paying for their own meals. NBC's Joel Seidman reports on one victim of the Abramoff scandal.
/ Source: NBC News

WASHINGTON — The scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has claimed its first victim: The Capitol Hill free lunch.

Lobbyist Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, can't give them away. He offered to take some congressional staffers to lunch last week, but was told they could not accept meals from lobbyists anymore.

And the lunch Doggett was offering was not extravagant — a $11.99 buffet in the Dirksen Senate Office Building's basement — a buffet that includes lime jello.

Yes, even before any new ethics rules have been put in place as a result of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, a chow-down chill has descended on Washington.

And the aftermath is not only hitting hot lunch spots around Capitol Hill. 

Suddenly, skyboxes are empty, "fact-finding" trips have been canceled and senators, congressmen and their aides now are insisting on paying for their own meals (if they're even willing to be seen in public with a lobbyist).

Ducking for cover
For politicians who have had any contact with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, it's duck-for-cover time.

For example, a Washington lobbying firm won't be hosting the 71st birthday fundraiser for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. Instead of being held, as planned, at powerhouse influence-peddlers Cassidy & Associates offices, last night's event was held at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters close to his Capitol Hill office.

Burns is the GOP veteran who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Indian Affairs.  His staffers got some lavish favors — a trip to the 2001 Super Bowl and gambling on a SunCruz Casinos boat — and, in some cases, well-paying jobs, from Abramoff. 

And Burns last month decided to return or give to charity some $150,000 he received from Abramoff or his clients. His own home state tribal counsel refused the refund, saying the money was "tainted."

Now, according to Mark Baker, Burns' campaign chairman, the senator will contact the tribes who originally donated the contributions to the senator's political action committee (PAC), Friends of the Big Sky.

Baker said the campaign, "will determine which charitable organization a comparable contribution should be given." He added that, "any remaining funds will then be divided evenly between (sic) the Montana tribal colleges."

Canceled plans
Back in Washington, D.C., calendars are opening up as plans for so-called fact-finding trips are canceled.

For instance, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), which lobbies for high-technology companies, planned to take about a dozen lawmakers to Silicon Valley to see some whiz-bang technology. The trip has been called off.

Rhett Dawson, president of ITI, said the trip was canceled as an "anticipatory move to any future restrictions.” Dawson said lobbying activities continue on the Hill, but with a difference. "We split the cost of lunch with staffers. We are saving a lot of money."

Doggett, from the Corn Growers Association, now fears that the only way his organization will get near members of congress or their staffs, "is if we hand them a $2,500 PAC check."

Restaurants see chill
Upscale restaurants have noticed a decrease in business. Although, owners can't be sure if it's because of the long congressional recess or the lobby scandal.

Paul Zucconi the co-owner of La Colline, a popular French restaurant two blocks from Senate office buildings says, "We will have to wait and see."

Another lobbyist watering hole, Bistro Bis, says their business has not been affected — yet.

Meanwhile, Zucconi is glad he started a $20 prix-fix lunch during the summer. "We were ahead of our time," he jokes of the special, which Zucconi has kept on the menu.

An advantage: Its price would just meet the proposed new GOP limit of $20 for entertaining.

But it will not meet the outright ban instituted last week by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who ordered his personal staff to refuse any gifts or meals from lobbyists.  Period.  Previously, his office followed the current Congress-wide rules, which permit gifts and meals with values less than $50.

Republicans act
Across from the Senate, the House Republican leadership has moved to reduce the role of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit group whose board members and donors include lobbyists.

At the House Republican Leadership Conference’s annual retreat next month (Feb. 9-11) in Chesapeake, Md, on the Eastern Shore, staffers of the Republican leaders can no longer accept expenses and other logistical costs paid for by the Congressional Institute.

Sean Spicer, a spokesman for conference chairwoman Rep. Deborah Pryce, R–Ohio, says, "We are not accepting Institute money because of media perception." She said the Republican lawmakers usually pay for their own travel and lodging costs at the gathering.

Some still going for the real deal with Bon Jovi
Yet, some are bucking the trend. Burns' fellow Montana Senator, Democrat Max Baucus, is risking ridicule by holding his fundraiser in a lobbyist's skybox at a Feb. 2 Bon Jovi concert.

Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser said there are no plans to change the location, a luxury suite provided by Cassidy & Associates. "I don't think Bon Jovi playing `Bad Medicine' in a conference room would go over too big,” said Kaiser, whose boss also shed Abramoff tribal clients' contributions, but has not been mentioned in the lobby scandal investigation.