- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accepted free ringside tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission to three professional boxing matches while that state agency was trying to influence him on federal regulation of boxing.

Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, took the free seats for Las Vegas fights from 2003 to 2005 as he was pressing legislation to increase government oversight of the sport, including the creation of a federal boxing commission that Nevada’s agency feared might usurp its authority.

Mr. Reid, who has accused the Republicans of fostering a culture of corruption, defended the gifts, saying they would never influence his position on the bill and 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 states.

Two Republican senators who joined Mr. Reid for fights with the complimentary tickets took markedly differently steps.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona insisted on paying $1,400 for the tickets he shared with Mr. Reid for a championship match between Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins, one of 2004’s most-hyped fights. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada accepted free tickets to another fight along with Mr. Reid but already had recused himself from Mr. Reid’s boxing legislation because his father was an executive for a Las Vegas hotel that hosts fights.

In an interview Thursday in his Capitol office, Mr. 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,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. 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 Mr. Abramoff.

The meetings occurred over a five-day span in which Mr. Ayoob also threw a fundraiser for Mr. Reid at the firm where Mr. Ayoob and Abramoff worked. That firm netted numerous donations from Abramoff’s partners, firm and clients.

Mr. 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 Mr. Reid at the fundraiser and the next morning met briefly with Mr. Reid and Mr. Ayoob at the senator’s office to discuss federal programs. Mr. Reid and the tribal chairman posed for a picture.

Five days earlier, Mr. Reid met with Mr. Ayoob and the Sac & Fox tribe of Iowa for about 15 minutes to discuss at least two legislative requests. Mr. Reid’s office said the senator never acted on those requests.

A few months after the fundraiser, Mr. Reid sponsored a spending bill that targeted $100,000 to another Abramoff tribe, the Chitimacha of Louisiana, to pay for a soil erosion study that Mr. Ayoob lobbied for. Mr. Reid said he sponsored the provision because Louisiana lawmakers sent him a letter requesting it.

AP recently reported that Mr. Reid also wrote at least four letters favorable to Abramoff’s tribal clients around the time Mr. Reid collected donations from those clients and Abramoff’s partners. Mr. Reid has declined to return the donations, unlike other lawmakers, saying his letters were consistent with his beliefs.

Mr. Reid broadly defended his actions, stating he would never 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 whether 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 former ethics officials said they thought Mr. 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 facts to determine whether Mr. Reid violated the gift ban but said a clearer ethics issue involved Mr. 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 for the tickets or fair market value or not accept the tickets in the first place.”

Andrew Herman, a Washington lawyer who frequently works with Congress, agreed. “I think it is pretty clear what Senator McCain did in the current atmosphere in Washington was certainly the more prudent thing.”

Attorney Marc Elias, who has represented Democrats in ethics cases and was asked by Mr. Reid’s office to call AP, said he thought Mr. Reid should not be penalized for trying to help his state.

“There are varying degrees of gift givers,” Mr. 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 Mr. Reid took the free tickets, said one of his desires was to convince Mr. Reid and Mr. McCain, who were pushing legislation to create a federal boxing commission, that there was no need for the federal government to usurp the state commission’s authority.

“I invited him because I was talking with his staff” about the legislation, Mr. Ratner said. “This was a chance for all of my commissioners, who are politically appointed, to interact with them. It was important for them to see how we in Nevada did things.” He added that he hoped the two senators, at the very least, would be persuaded to model any federal commission after Nevada’s body.

Mr. Reid said he remembered talking to Mr. Ratner briefly at the fights and knew Mr. Ratner was working with his Senate staff on the federal legislation.

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