WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic 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.
Reid, D-Nev., took the free seats for Las Vegas fights between 2003 and 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.
He 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.
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 the tickets he shared with Reid for a 2004 championship fight. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., accepted free tickets to another fight with Reid but already had recused himself from Reid's federal boxing legislation 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 Goodie 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 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 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."
Andrew Herman, a Washington lawyer who frequently works with Congress, agreed. "I think it is pretty clear what Sen. McCain did in the current atmosphere in Washington was certainly the more prudent thing."
"I think if you are receiving anything of value from anyone that has matters before the federal government and matters under your purview that you have to be very careful with your conduct," Herman said.
Attorney Marc Elias, who has represented Democrats in ethics cases and was asked by Reid's office to call 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 & 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 invited him because I was talking with his staff" about the legislation, 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.
"I am a states rights activist and I didn't want any federal bill that would take away our state rights to regulate fights," he 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.
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.
"Sen. 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.
"He did not have anything to do with it because at the time he recused himself," Ensign spokesman Jack Finn said of the legislation.
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."