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Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who has criticized Republican ethics, accepted free ringside tickets to three professional boxing matches from Nevada officials who were trying to influence his federal legislation regulating the sport.
Reid, D-Nev., took the free seats for Las Vegas fights between 2003 and 2005 from the Nevada Athletic Commission as he pressed legislation to increase federal oversight of boxing, including the creation of a government commission.
Reid defended the gifts, saying they would never influence his position on the boxing bill and that he was simply trying to learn how his legislation might affect an important home state industry. “Anyone from Nevada would say I’m glad he is there taking care of the state’s No. 1 businesses,” he told The Associated Press.
“I love the fights anyways, so it wasn’t like being punished,” added the senator, a former boxer and boxing judge.
Senate ethics rules generally allow lawmakers to accept gifts from federal, state or local governments, but specifically warn against taking such gifts _ particularly on multiple occasions _ when they might be connected to efforts to influence official actions.
“Senators and Senate staff should be wary of accepting any gift where it appears that the gift is motivated by a desire to reward, influence or elicit favorable official action,” the Senate ethics manual states. It cites the 1990s example of an Oregon lawmaker who took gifts for personal use from a South Carolina state university and its president while that school was trying to influence his official actions.
“Repeatedly taking gifts which the Gifts Rule otherwise permits to be accepted may, nonetheless, reflect discredit upon the institution, and should be avoided,” the manual says.
Several ethics experts said Reid should have paid for the tickets, which were close to the ring and worth between several hundred and several thousand dollars each, to avoid the appearance he was being influenced by gifts.
Two senators who joined Reid for fights with the complimentary tickets took markedly differently steps.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., insisted on paying $1,400 for his ticket when he joined Reid for a 2004 championship fight. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., accepted free tickets to another fight with Reid but already had abstained from taking any votes or actions on the boxing bill because his father was an executive for a Las Vegas hotel that hosts fights.
In an interview Thursday in his Capitol office, Reid broadly defended his decisions to accept the tickets and to take several actions benefiting disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s clients and partners as they donated to him.
“I’m not goody-two-shoes. I just feel these events are nothing I did wrong,” Reid said.
Reid had separate meetings in June 2003 in his Senate offices with two Abramoff tribal clients and Edward Ayoob, a former staffer who went to work lobbying with Abramoff.
The meetings occurred over a five-day span in which Ayoob also threw a fundraiser for Reid at the firm where Ayoob and Abramoff worked that netted numerous donations from Abramoff’s partners, firm and clients.
Reid said he viewed the two official meetings and the fundraiser as a single event. “I think it all was one, the way I look at it,” he said.
One of the tribes, the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan, donated $9,000 to Reid at the fundraiser and the next morning met briefly with Reid and Ayoob at Reid’s office to discuss federal programs. Reid and the tribal chairman posed for a picture.
Five days earlier, Reid met with Ayoob and the Sac & Fox tribe of Iowa for about 15 minutes to discuss at least two legislative requests. Reid’s office said the senator never acted on those requests.
A few months after the fundraiser, Reid did sponsor a spending bill that targeted $100,000 to another Abramoff tribe, the Chitimacha of Louisiana, to pay for a soil erosion study Ayoob was lobbying for. Reid said he sponsored the provision because Louisiana lawmakers sent him a letter requesting it.
Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist, has pleaded guilty in a widespread corruption probe of Capitol Hill. Reid used that conviction earlier this year to accuse Republicans of fostering a culture of corruption inside Congress.
AP recently reported that Reid also wrote at least four letters favorable to Abramoff’s tribal clients around the time Reid collected donations from those clients and Abramoff’s partners. Reid has declined to return the donations, unlike other lawmakers, saying his letters were consistent with his beliefs.
Senate ethics rules require senators to avoid even the appearance that any official meetings or actions they took were in any way connected with political donations.
Reid said he never would change his position because of donations, free tickets or a request from a former-staffer-turned-lobbyist.
“People who deal with me and have over the years know that I am an advocate for what I believe in. I always try to do it fair, never take advantage of people on purpose,” he said.
Asked if he would have done anything differently, the Senate Democratic leader said his only concern was “the willingness of the press … to take these instances and try to make a big deal out of them.”
Several ethics experts said they believed Reid should have paid for the boxing tickets to avoid violating Senate ethics rules.
Bernadette Sargeant, a former House ethics lawyer, said the Senate would have to examine the specific facts to determine whether Reid violated the gift ban. She said the clearer ethics issue involved Reid’s obligation to avoid the appearance that the free tickets and his official duties were connected.
“From what you are describing, it is such a huge risk that a reasonable person with all the relevant facts would say this creates the appearance of impropriety,” she said. “The more cautious thing, the more prudent thing would be to either pay the tickets or fair market value or not accept the tickets in the first place.”
Attorney Marc Elias, who has represented Democrats in ethics cases and was asked by Reid’s office to call the AP, said he believed Reid should not be penalized for trying to help his state. “There are varying degrees of gift givers,” Elias said. “There is a difference between a gift from a state entity and a gift from a savings and loan.”
Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission when Reid took the free tickets, said one of his desires was to convince Reid and McCain that there was no need for the federal government to usurp the state commission’s authority. At the time, McCain and Reid were pushing legislation to create a federal boxing commission.
“I am a states rights activist and I didn’t want any federal bill that would take away our state rights to regulate fights,” Ratner said, adding that he hoped McCain and Reid, at the very least, would be persuaded to model any federal commission after Nevada’s body.
Reid said he remembered talking to Ratner briefly at the fights and knew Ratner was working with his Senate staff on the federal legislation. The legislation ultimately failed to pass in Congress.
McCain’s office said the Arizona senator felt an obligation to pay for the ringside tickets he got from the Nevada commission to attend the Oscar De La Hoya-Bernard Hopkins championship match in September 2004.
“Senator McCain has always paid for his own tickets to boxing matches and sees no reason to change that,” aide Mark Salter said.
Ensign’s office said he attended one fight in the last couple of years with Reid and accepted the free tickets from the commission. But his office said Ensign already had removed himself from the boxing legislation that would have affected the Nevada commission.
Kathleen Clark, a Washington University of St. Louis congressional ethics expert, said Congress should re-examine the exemption allowing gifts by state and federal and local governments because they too can have interest in influencing federal lawmakers like Reid.
“I think he would want to be above approach even when it’s from a state commission and not a private lobbyist,” Clark said. “I don’t think we should make any assumption about a government. The fact is government agencies can act as proxies for different interests. Here it happens to be the Nevada boxing commission, and I would guess it is aligned with certain industry groups.”
© 2006 The Associated Press