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April 17, 2014

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Deciding when a steak dinner is education, not lobbying

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Leila Navidi

Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas speaks at the Nevada delegation welcome party Sunday at the Courtyard Marriott in Denver. Berkley also served as informal host of a dinner given by a medical company.

An open and passionate man, Timothy E. Guertin is a chief executive with a story to tell, and he came to the Democratic National Convention to share it over dinner with potentially influential friends.

He believes his company, which saves lives with cancer-fighting technology, can use its know-how to help with national security. Researchers at his plant in Las Vegas are working on that now.

So Guertin came to the convention to spread the news over cocktails and a buffet for Nevadans who traveled to Denver as delegates. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas informally served as host.

As dozens of people sipped cocktails and ate steaks and vegetables at a hotel bistro, Guertin was able to break bread with Berkley, mingle and say a few words to the crowd. By night’s end, as the tables were being cleared, Guertin said the event “gave me a chance to meet people I otherwise wouldn’t meet.”

That kind of access is just what he had hoped for — and may be precisely what new lobbying rules are supposed to prevent. Ethics watchdogs believe it is happening on a widespread scale in Denver.

Sit-down dinners like this were banned by Congress after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Allowed now are hors d’oeuvres receptions that limit wining and dining to nibbles on snacks speared by toothpicks.

The toothpick rule says lawmakers such as Berkley are prohibited from sit-down dinners unless they meet various standards. Here’s the test, according to Craig Holman of Public Citizen:

• The events must be attended by at least 25 people to prevent coziness between sponsors and lawmakers.

Check.

• The member of Congress must not be singularly honored by the lobbyist.

Check.

• The event must have an educational or legislative component, and not be just a party.

Hmmmm.

Varian Medical Systems did set out pamphlets and materials. Berkley gave a short speech about the good Varian is doing in the medical field. Guertin gave a brief talk about his company.

Does that pass the educational vs. party test?

Holman is skeptical.

“I doubt if any of these parties qualify as a conference,” Holman said. “They throw a little educational speech in there and go on with dinner.”

Once the parties are done, “the Ethics Committee is going to have to take a close look,” Holman said.

The penalty? Lawmakers who violate the rule could face the Ethics Committee, he said, or the court of public opinion through the press.

Berkley’s decision to attend was not capricious. She was invited to 1,800 parties during this convention week. The congresswoman’s staff pored over the new ethics rules with party attorneys to ensure she would be in compliance with the new law. She believes the Sunday dinner cleared the bar.

“Varian does many good things for many people,” she said during her remarks.

Guertin says there’s nothing dark about his reasons for throwing a party in Denver.

His company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., opened its Las Vegas facility five years ago. Researchers in Las Vegas are perfecting the transformation of his company’s successful medical X-ray technology for scanning cargo. His goal is to look, Superman-style, into a tractor-trailer’s haul and in 30 seconds decide whether it is safe to enter the country.

It’s technology he wants policymakers to know is alive in Nevada.

“We need to be able to educate them,” he said. “I’m not expecting anything. You never know when you do these things what they’ll do.”

But he thinks some day an influential policymaker might remember Varian.

“My company is about saving lives, preventing harm,” he said. “There’s nothing evil with talking to me.”

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