December 18, 2013
Whitfield defends interaction between his official actions and his wife’s lobbying. | AP Photo
Rep. Ed Whitfield is leading the charge on contentious animal welfare legislation — a push that his wife, a paid lobbyist for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, is urging Congress to support.
The pair’s efforts have included sessions in which they have jointly lobbied lawmakers and aides to support the legislation, according to sources who have met with the couple.
It’s uncommon for a lawmaker to work so closely with a lobbyist on legislation, especially with a spouse who is paid to lobby on the issue. The Whitfields have caught the ire of opponents of the legislation who allege their activity is inappropriate, since the congressman’s wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, has worked as a registered lobbyist for the fund since 2011.
The Kentucky Republican hasn’t been shy about mentioning the connection with his wife’s employer, even noting in statements on the House floor that the Humane Society — among other organizations — supports his legislative initiatives.
Whitfield defends the interaction between his official actions and his wife’s lobbying, and he adds that anyone who doesn’t like it can file a complaint against him with the House Ethics Committee.
“I don’t view that as an ethics violation because it’s an issue that I’ve been involved in since I’ve been in Congress and this is a practice that must be and should be stopped,” Whitfield said. “There’s a big difference in my mind of getting financial gain for some financial institution, to trying to prevent cruelty to animals.”
Whitfield, first elected to the House in the 1994 Republican Revolution, has introduced the “Prevent All Soring Tactics Act,” which would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bar the practice of “soring” during horse shows. This refers to the use of blistering agents or mechanical devices that alter a horse’s gait. This is done to Tennessee walking horses or other show horses, making it painful for the horse to step down on their hooves.
“You have the right, any person has the right to file a complaint with the Ethics Committee if they think we are violating House ethics laws,” Whitfield added. “I don’t apologize for lobbying people about this issue because these animals are being abused, and there is no monetary gain for me, no monetary gain for anybody. In fact, money is being spent to prevent us to be successful.”
Whitfield said he expects a House vote on his bill next month.
The Humane Society Legislative Fund’s most recent lobbying report — covering July 1 to Sept. 30, 2013 — lists the bill as one of the pieces of legislation on which Harriman-Whitfield is actively lobbying lawmakers.
The Humane Society’s disclosure report also lists a number of other bills that Whitfield has co-sponsored as legislative priorities for the group.
And the organization has contributed $6,000 to Whitfield’s reelection campaign since 2010, Federal Election Commission records show.
Opponents of Whitfield’s legislation have raised questions about the couple’s handling of the matter. Performance Show Horse Association Chairman of the Board Doyle Meadows raised questions in early December about the Whitfields’ actions. “And in a strange coincidence — I think not — the congressman happens to be married to a lobbyist for the [Humane Society],” Meadows wrote on the association’s website, following a hearing on Whitfield’s bill by the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Whitfield chairs another subcommittee on the energy and commerce panel.
Connie Harriman-Whitfield has been associated with the Humane Society since 2007, although she has been a lobbyist only since 2011, lobbying disclosure records filed by group’s lobbying arm show.
During a March 2011 meeting in a Dupont Circle area club, the Whitfields openly lobbied members and staffers together on legislation, showing how little room there seems to be between his official actions and her lobbying.
“I have been in a room and seen Whitfield and his wife lobbying members and staff on Humane Society horse issues,” said a Capitol Hill source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Under House ethics rules, lawmakers are prohibited from doing “special favors” for anyone, including family members.
“The prohibition against doing any special favors for anyone in one’s official
capacity is a fundamental standard of conduct, and it applies to an official’s conduct with regard to not only his or her spouse or other family members, but more broadly to any person,” the House Ethics Manual states.
In addition, the Ethics Manual warns that “Special caution must be exercised when the spouse of a Member or staff person, or any other immediate family member, is a lobbyist. At a minimum, such an official should not permit the spouse to lobby either him or herself or any of his or her subordinates …”
Ethics experts said that the Whitfields could be violating House rules through their joint lobbying for legislation, although these experts cautioned that it isn’t a cut-and-dried case.
“If it were Boeing and they were doing this, it would be a really big deal,” said Melanie Sloan, head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. While Sloan applauded the Whitfields for disclosing their activities — something that has been one of the major problems in other ethics cases — she said the joint lobbying of members and staffers is troubling.
“I can’t see a flat-out ethics violation, but I can certainly see it creates an appearance problem, and it would seem like the better course would be for them not to be lobbying together; that seems inappropriate to me,” Sloan said.
Veteran ethics lawyer Stanley Brand said the activity does raise questions because lawmakers aren’t supposed to gain personal benefit from their official duties.
“It’s not that easy to get from those general standards to a violation,” Brand said. “There have been cases before where spouses have been registered lobbyists and their husbands or wives are on committees where those companies have interest and that’s never been enough to get you to a violation.”
Whitfield is hardly alone when it comes to lawmakers with relatives who lobby. Dozens of congressional relatives are registered lobbyists, and oftentimes, lawmakers with family ties on issues weigh in on legislative proposals. Congress cracked down on ethics reforms in 2007, banning spouses from lobbying a member’s personal office staff and the lawmaker. Other lawmakers whose relatives have lobbied include: the wife of Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as a lobbyist at Kraft Foods and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), whose father — former Rep. Bud Shuster — served as a contract lobbyist.
Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle defended Harriman-Whitfield’s involvement pushing the horse legislation.
“I think sometimes when folks look at issues like this, they nitpick on it as a conflict of interest and I just want to say, No. 1, there is a real difference in working for a coal company or an oil company or any big business, pharmaceutical company and working for a nonprofit organization where there is no financial incentive to gain as an institution,” Pacelle said. “The track record of both Connie and Ed is deep involvement in animal welfare far preceding Connie’s involvement in the Humane Society. She came to the Humane Society because she was already very, very involved on these issues personally.”
Further, Pacelle said that he meets with Whitfield to discuss legislative issues, not Harriman-Whitfield.
Pacelle said he didn’t see anything wrong with Whitfield and his wife personally lobbying his colleagues together on the issue of animal cruelty.
“It’d be a shame if our society didn’t allow spouses to advocate for ending poverty in the world, or advancing other core values of our society. I’m not sure what she’s supposed to do, just be mute on these issues with his colleagues,” Pacelle said.
Harriman-Whitfield has a history of advocating against animal cruelty long before joining the Humane Society Legislative Fund in 2007. As assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks for the Department of the Interior under President George H.W. Bush, Harriman-Whitfield is credited with playing a major role in instituting the U.S. and worldwide ban on the elephant ivory trade.
Harriman-Whitfield now serves as senior policy adviser for the Humane Society Legislative Fund and has been engaged in federal lobbying since early 2011. During this two-year period, the HSLF spent $90,000 on in-house lobbying activities, according to Senate lobbying disclosure reports. An outside lobbying firm billed the organization an additional $60,000 so far this year, according to another report.
Whitfield’s annual financial disclosure report does not include his wife’s compensation from the Humane Society.
For his part, Whitfield said his standing with the Humane Society hasn’t always been good, although he provided POLITICO with a long list of legislation he has offered dealing with animal welfare during his time in Congress.
“Sometimes I’ve had a good record with them and sometimes I have not had a good record with them, but I’ve been involved in a multitude of issues, so from my perspective there absolutely is no violation of ethics laws and if someone thinks there is they can file a complaint,” Whitfield said, noting that he has a 62 percent rating in the group’s 2013 midterm score card.