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FCBA Chairman's Dinner & FCC: Legal but is it Really Ethical?


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FCBAChmnDin12
The announcement for the “Annual Chairman’s Dinner” shown at left is now on the website of the Federal Communications Bar Association (FCBA), a group that describes itself as:

“ a volunteer organization of attorneys, engineers, consultants, economists, government officials and law students involved in the study, development, interpretation and practice of communications and information technology law and policy. From broadband deployment to broadcast content, from emerging wireless technologies to emergency communications, from spectrum allocations to satellite broadcasting, the FCBA has something to offer nearly everyone involved in the communications industry. That’s why the FCBA, more than two thousand members strong, has been the leading organization for communications lawyers and other professionals since 1936.”

Your blogger is a minor functionary in this organization as a co-chair of a committee that organizes professional events dealing with technical communications policy - generally spectrum oriented.

The text in this screen shot is somewhat small, so here is the text in a more readable format:

The 26th Annual Chairman’s Dinner will be held Thursday, December 13, 2012 at the Washington Hilton, 1919 Connecticut Avenue, NW. The evening will begin with a reception at 6:00 p.m. The dinner will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the International Ballroom and will be followed by remarks from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. Sponsor’s tables include a $350.00 tax deductible donation to the FCBA Foundation. Inviting Government Guests - Pursuant to the Office of Government Ethics regulation on widely-attended gatherings (5 C.F.R. 2635.204(g)(2)), the Chairman’s Dinner appears to qualify as a widely attended gathering. The value of an individual ticket to the dinner is $225.00. Most employees of the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department may be directly invited to attend the dinner as guests of individuals and organizations purchasing tables or tickets. In most cases, individuals and organizations may issue invitations to the Chairman’s Dinner without the involvement of the FCBA. Some agencies, departments and branches of the Federal Government, however, apply additional stipulations above the regulations issued by the Office of Government Ethics. Individuals who have signed the Administration’s Ethics pledge cannot accept invitations from most registered lobbying organizations or registered lobbyists. While this event has qualified as a widely-attended-gathering in previous years, each FCC employee is required to obtain individual ethics clearance based on matters they are working on within the Commission. Employees of the Commerce Department are required to obtain individual ethics clearance through the Department’s Office of General Counsel. Invitations to Members of Congress, Congressional Staff, and employees of the Department of State must be issued by the FCBA. Contact the FCBA for additional information.

Note the phrase “Most employees of the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department may be directly invited to attend the dinner as guests of individuals and organizations purchasing tables or tickets.” Thus FCBA members active in telecom policy can invite FCC and NTIA employees to a $225/head dinner where they will only be surrounded by other people who paid $225/head. Furthermore, if you buy a table, your favorite FCC and NTIA employee will only be surrounded by your invitees, no doubt only people from your FCC regulated or your law firm.

This is clearly legal under present law and as the announcement says FCC and NTIA employees need approval from agency ethics staff. Note that “Members of Congress, Congressional Staff, and employees of the Department of State” are presently subject to somewhat tighter ethics rules and can not get invitations directly from FCC regulates or their law firms so presumably might sit with a broader cross section of people.

But as a matter of public policy does this make sense? Why aren’t FCC and NTIA employees at least to the same ethics standards as DOS? While holiday socializing is a good thing, are $225/head dinners described here as “widely attended gathering” really the only way to do it? (Does a $225/head dinner qualify as a “widely attended gathering” in any other context?)

No doubt we will have new leadership at FCC and NTIA in the next few months. Tightening ethics rules for this type of events - at least to DOS standards - seems like a good idea for the new leadership at each agency as an early project to improve ethics and credibility.
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