WASHINGTON – Reversing course, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's office acknowledged Wednesday night he misstated the ethics rules governing his acceptance of free boxing tickets and has decided to avoid taking such gifts in the future.
The Nevada senator still believes it was "entirely permissible" for him to accept ringside seats for three professional boxing matches in 2004 and 2005 from the Nevada Athletic Commission but has nonetheless decided to avoid doing so in the future, his office said.
"In light of questions that have been raised about the practice, Senator Reid will not accept these kinds of credentials in the future in order to avoid even the faintest appearance of impropriety," spokesman Jim Manley said.
The announcement came after The Associated Press confronted Reid's office early Wednesday with conclusions from several ethics experts that the Senate leader misstated congressional ethics rules in trying to defend his actions.
The AP reported Monday that Reid accepted the free seats from the Nevada commission as it was trying to influence his support for legislation to create a federal boxing commission. The state agency feared the legislation would usurp its authority to regulate fights and wanted to convince Reid there was no need for a federal body.
Reid voted to set up a federal commission, but Congress never enacted the legislation.
Reid told Las Vegas reporters on Tuesday he would continue to accept such tickets and did not believe he did anything wrong even though fellow Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who joined him for one of the fights, decided to reimburse $1,400 for his seat.
Reid said he believed it was appropriate to accept the free tickets because the gifts were from his home state and that McCain, R-Ariz., had to reimburse because he was from out of state.
Senate ethics rules generally allow senators to take gifts from any state, not just their home state. But they specifically warn against taking normally permissible gifts if the giver may be trying to influence official action.
Manley said Wednesday night that Reid "misspoke when he said the rule applies only to senators who represent the state agency." But he added he believes Reid still could ethically accept the tickets.
"It was therefore entirely permissible for Senator Reid — a senator from Nevada — to have attended a major Nevada sporting event as a guest of Nevada officials," Manley said.
Several ethics experts disagreed, criticizing Reid's rationale that he felt obligated to take the tickets to ensure boxing was being conducted properly in his home state.
"He is no more obligated to go to boxing matches than he is to a Celine Dion concert in Vegas," said Melanie Sloan, a former Justice Department prosecutor and head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Fred Wertheimer, a longtime ethics watchdog, agreed.
"The test under congressional ethics rules in these circumstances is not what state a member is from but whether the gift creates the appearance that the gift is motivated by a desire to influence the member or gain favorable official action," Wertheimer said. "If the gift creates such an appearance, it should not be accepted."