Three times this year, a lobbyist sought help from Rep. Christopher Cannon for his clients and got it. The lobbyist was the congressman's brother, Joseph Cannon.
The Utah lawmaker acknowledges helping his brother's clients, including pressing Congress last month to intervene in a business dispute over an Internet contract estimated to be worth as much as $1.3 billion.
"If my wife decided to lobby, then we would probably say, 'No talking to my office.' I just don't see my brother in the same category," Cannon, R-Utah, told The Associated Press.
Cannon has a financial interest in his brother's success: The lobbyist owes him more than $250,000, according to the lawmaker's financial disclosure reports.
A question of ethics?
There are no U.S. laws prohibiting relatives from lobbying lawmakers. House ethics rules require lawmakers to behave in ways that "reflect creditably" on Congress, avoid any special favors for family members and avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.
"A lot of people I know are lobbyists," said Rep. Cannon, who has been elected five times. "I would put Joe in that category, not as a family member."
Some ethics experts rejected Cannon's distinction.
"It's an obvious conflict of interest," said Wendell Rawls Jr., acting executive director at the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "It's an obvious use of an insider position to further the best interest of a family member."
Fred Werthheimer, head of the Democracy 21 group that endorses lobbying and campaign finance reforms, said Cannon has created appearance problems - months before midterm elections - inside a Congress already tainted by lobbying scandals and bribery investigations.
"When a member of Congress starts taking action based on the requests of a brother or spouse, you create the impression that the action may be taking place to provide a financial benefit for the family rather than to carry out proper public policy," he said. "This is the kind of appearance problem no member needs."
Dozens of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have children, siblings or spouses who work as lobbyists. Some told the AP they prohibit relatives, even siblings, from lobbying them or anyone working for them.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., whose sister is a lobbyist for nuclear and energy interests, does not allow her to lobby his office. Likewise, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay limited access to his office by his estranged brother, Randy, after 1996, when Randy DeLay's lobbying activities prompted an ethics complaint that later was dismissed. DeLay, R-Texas, left Congress earlier this year under an ethics cloud.
Joseph Cannon, who also is chairman of the Utah Republican party, is his congressman-brother's one-time business partner. He leads a team of 10 lobbyists at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, a law and lobbying firm. He represents nearly a dozen lobbying clients and specializes in environmental cases.
In the Internet dispute, Rep. Cannon joined with three other lawmakers last month at his brother's urging to press for a congressional hearing. They signed a letter that expressed concerns about a proposed contract - which is subject to approval by the Bush administration - between the Internet's primary oversight body and VeriSign Inc., a $4.2 billion California company.
Joseph Cannon is a lobbyist for a competing company, Network Solutions Inc. That company sells Web addresses and opposes price increases it would pay to VeriSign under the pending agreement.
"My job was to talk with Chris," the lobbyist brother told AP. "After I talked with him, the fact is, we hardly ever talked about it after that. I don't spend much time lobbying my brother on things. I can't use him just because he's my brother to go do something; it's got to be something he's got a legitimate interest in."
Rep. Cannon, chairman of the House Judiciary commercial law subcommittee, said he has closely followed Internet issues. "He had a client. I had an interest," the lawmaker explained.
Joseph Cannon's lobbying firm helped draft the July 7 letter his brother signed asking Rep. Lamar Smith, who heads the House Judiciary Internet subcommittee, to hold a hearing. Smith, R-Texas, said he has not yet decided whether to conduct such an oversight hearing.
Joseph Cannon said he has lobbied his brother on other occasions, twice involving higher education issues. Rep. Cannon's home district in Provo, Utah, includes Brigham Young University, which last year paid Joseph Cannon roughly $70,000 as its Washington lobbyist. Both brothers graduated from the university.
Joseph Cannon sought his brother's help earlier this year establishing a "complexity center" involving Brigham Young and the University of Utah. Joseph Cannon said it was to be run by a defense contractor, System of Systems Analytics Inc. of Chantilly, Va.. The contractor employs Joseph Cannon's Utah-based company, The Western Standard Publishing Company Inc., as a subcontractor.
Joseph Cannon said he disclosed his own business relationship with the project, which both he and Rep. Cannon said was scuttled in its early stages.
Rep. Cannon also favored a bill earlier this year to exempt religious colleges from certain accreditation guidelines, such as rules on discriminating against gay students and teachers and requirements for courses that conflict with the schools' philosophy.
Joseph Cannon said he sought his brother's support on behalf of Brigham Young. The House bill passed on a voice vote.
Joseph Cannon said he also introduced leaders of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Jewish group, to his brother and other Republicans the day fighting broke out in Lebanon earlier this summer.
"It doesn't make sense not to approach him just the way I would approach anybody else," Joseph Cannon said. "I believe his response would have been exactly the same if ... someone else from my firm had talked with him."
As for the unpaid debt to his brother, Joseph Cannon said it stems from his own unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate 14 years ago.
Joseph Cannon said he approached his brother about the Internet agreement as part of a behind-the-scenes campaign to convince lawmakers on some Senate and House committees the deal would be bad for consumers.
The agreement would permit VeriSign to increase the wholesale price it charges companies like Network Solutions for each Internet dot-com address from $6 per year to $7.86 - or more if it can justify further price increases.
In the weeks after Network Solutions hired the lobbying firm, two lobbyists there - both Democrats - contributed a combined $1,500 to Rep. Cannon's Republican campaign.
One of those lobbyists, Thomas O'Donnell, worked closely with Rep. Cannon's office on behalf of Network Solutions after June 15. O'Donnell gave $1,000 to Rep. Cannon on May 17.
O'Donnell said he gave the money because Rep. Cannon was his lobbying partner's brother and because he supports Rep. Cannon's moderate views on immigration reform, a key issue in Cannon's primary. O'Donnell said Joseph Cannon did not solicit the contribution.
No prior knowledge
Network Solutions said it was unaware of Joseph Cannon's family ties when it hired his firm in April to rally opposition to the Internet agreement.
"I, personally, and no one at Network Solutions had any idea," said the company's chief counsel, Jonathon Nevett. "I had never heard of Chris Cannon or Joe Cannon."
Nevett has publicly praised the lawmakers' request for a congressional hearing.
Network Solutions spent $80,000 on lobbying last year; VeriSign spent at least $440,000 over the same period, Senate records show.
VeriSign's Washington lobbyists include former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Ashcroft's former chief of staff, David Ayres. VeriSign's political action committee donated $1,000 to Rep. Smith in April and $1,000 to Cannon in November.
Rep. Cannon said his relationships with his brother's clients can be discerned by reviewing congressional lobbying reports. He did not mention in his July 7 letter that he was acting at his brother's request.
"The rules really come down to disclosure," the lawmaker said. "It's easy to make the connections you made between me and my brother."