Editorial: The Congressional Cigar Association

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The ever-popular liberal-leaning Huffington Post (“HuffPo”) published a story a week ago titled “Congressional Cigar Association is Front for Lobbyists.” It was rather long, and for those that don’t read the HuffPo, Politico or The National Review, or don’t know what those publications are, it wasn’t the easiest of reads.  In addition, there have been a couple of responses, but none have really investigated the original piece. Anyways, below is my attempt at breaking down the original story and the following responses.

What is the Congressional Cigar Association (“CCA”)?

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Finding information isn’t easy, particularly as most Google searches just return links to the HuffPo article. Before I answer the question above, let me first introduce you to Brian P. Bilbray.

Brian P. Bilbray.pngMr. Bilbray is a Republican congressman who represents California’s 50th district, a position he has held since winning a 2006 special election for the seat of Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), who was forced to give up that seat after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion. Bilbray had previously been a local politican in San Diego County, and represented California’s 49th district from 1995-2001. It’s important to note, that in between 2001 and 2006, Bilbray was a registered lobbyist, not really shocking as it’s a rather popular profession for former elected officials to take. My brief research leads me to the following statements on Bilbray. He has become significantly more Conservative from his first stint to his second, his largest issue, by far, is illegal immigration, and he voted with President George W. Bush 93% of the time. He’s pro-choice, and as expected there are a couple things that don’t make a whole lot of sense, most notably: Bilbray claims to only rarely smoke cigars. This is particularly confusing because Bilbray is the chairman of the Congressional Cigar Association.

This correspondence shows his request for, and the subsequent the approval of, the Staff Congressional Cigar Association. According to Bilbray, the Congressional Cigar Association’s purpose is:

[T]o facilitate networking among Congressional staff, while appreciating fine cigars, the historical significance of tobacco in the U.S. economy, and the relationship these products have with trade.

It is the goal of the staff Congressional Cigar Association to build congenial relationships among House and Senate staff of both parties, and to reclaim civility in political discussion.

A PR release from July 22nd stated:

The Congressional Cigar Association is an officially recognized bipartisan organization of Congressional staffers from the House and Senate. All, of course, are cigar aficionados. The organizations purpose is to create a bipartisan atmosphere amongst staffers of both parties and the cigar smoking community.

In plain English: to smoke cigars and drink amongst colleagues and staffers.

The group was founded a year ago and that’s where the information stops. There’s no website. There’s really not much official, except that request, and a couple PR releases. In all honesty, things would have been a whole lot better if that was it.

So what does the Congressional Cigar Association do? The goals, in politically correct terms, were stated above. The International Premium Cigars & Pipe Retailers Association (“IPCPR”) commented after a May event:

More than 65 staffers showed up to learn how premium cigars are made, about the countries that produce them and the economic impact of the cigar industry in these countries, and about IPCPR retailers, which are largely mom-and-pop small businesses. In addition, open forum discussions were held, focusing on the effects of legislation on premium cigar retailers, especially tax-based Congressional and regulatory actions.

My research led me to the conclusion that the Congressional Cigar Association hosts events which are rather similar to some of the more upscale cigar events. They tend to be at restaurants, such as Morton’s Steakhouse, or people’s houses. Rosters are a diverse bunch, including cigar makers such as Rocky Patel, Nestor Miranda, etc., cigar retailers like Garry Pesh and  Draper’s, other industry members such as IPCPR, politicians, staffers, and lobbyists.

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The Lobbyists: Here’s the list, according to HuffPo, of lobbyists who make up some of the membership for the Congressional Cigar Association:

  • Jeff Choudhry – Director of Legislative Affairs at The Nickels Group, who lobbies for pharmaceutical and oil companies.
  • Steven Pfrang –  a lobbyist for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance.
  • Thomas Kim – of Scribe Stratagies & Advisors, a lobbyist for the South Korean government.
  • Gary Kline – staffer for Rep. Bilbray, and a lobbyist for science.
  • Doyle Barlett – of Eris Group, lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, Mortgage Bankers Association, the Chamber of Commerce, National Beer Wholesalers and others in the financial industry.
  • Doug Davenport – of CGI Group, lobbyist for Than Shwe, the head of Myanmar’s military junta.
  • Mark Alagna – a Lobbyist for UPS.
  • Chuck Cunningham – who lobbies for the NRA.
  • John Simmons – of Akin Gump, lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies.

Those are the only ones listed by the HuffPo, but I would presume there are more. The CCA declined to comment on their membership, as one would expect. Still, you have a guy who lobbies on behalf of the Burma’s military junta?

So what’s the problem? Besides a bunch of lobbyist going to steakhouses to smoke with Congress. Money, ethics and the cigar world.

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The numbers don’t add up. Here are some facts:

  • As of May 2010, the CCA had 150 members, it is apparently up to 200 now.
  • Membership dues are $40 annually
  • The CCA holds events quarterly, with a maximum of a $10 cover charge per event

Got that? The one year anniversary party for the Congressional Cigar Association was held on the roof of the Washington D.C. location of Charlie Palmer’s steakhouse. The roof costs about $10,000 to rent for the night. Who knows how much the drinks, food, cigars and live music would have cost. Even at 200 members and the full $10 cover charge, the group would have barely been able to pay for this event.

This comes after the October 2009, “Big Smoke” event that included special guests Rep. John Kline (R-MN), and Rocky Patel, and the January 2010 “Welcome Back Congress” event attended by Hon. Jesse Jackson Jr., Hon. Tom Cole and Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana. It’s also unclear how the $5,400 in travel bills for House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-OH) and Rep. John Tanner’s (D-TN) trip to Hot Springs, VA,  in March, were paid for by the CCA, who sponsored them.

In total there were five major events and the travel costs. Assume each event costs $10,000 and we are looking at somewhere around $55,000, a presumably lowball estimate, for a group that brings in, at the very most, $18,000 in dues and fees.

Someone has to pay for it.

IPCPR

Ethics violation? It’s hard to say. There’s little blatant evidence of ethics violations. There is however tons of evidence of people covering their respective asses and quite a bit of evidence suggesting some of the shadiness one sort of expects when they say “lobbyist.”

I’m not really too familiar with either the House or the Senate’s ethics guidelines for Congressional Associations and lobbying, I’d presume the staffers are. According to Stephanie Valle, a staffer for Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), and the vice finance chairman of the Congressional Cigar Association:

We are officially recognized by the House Administration Committee, as we discussed, and given that Congressional staff attend our events, all of our events comply with House and Senate Ethics rules (as they would have to even if we weren’t recognized as a CSO).

Are there lobbyists on the board of the CCA? Yes. Is that “against the rules?” Yes and no. Despite attempts, and some successes, to make lobbying more transparent, the following exception applies to the House Rules for Gifts:

  • An event is considered widely attended when at least 25 persons from outside Congress are expected to attend.
  • The event should be open to members from a given industry or profession, or to a range of persons interested in an issue.
  • Free attendance does not include entertainment collateral to the event, such as tickets to a sporting or some other purely recreational event.
  • The exemption also does not cover food or refreshments that are not taken in a group setting with substantially all of the other attendees.
  • A ticket to a sporting or recreational event that is not a charity must come within the gift limit of $49.99 and the aggregate limit from the source of $99.99 per year.
  • Even lobbyists, lobbying firms or foreign agents may sponsor a widely attended event.

Would the Congressional Cigar Association’s Events fall under “widely attended” event? Probably.

Still, the Huffington Post argues:

Staffers, through the “reception exemption,” are allowed to attend events and knock back a few drinks – but not if the event is organized and controlled by the staffers but paid for by outside lobbyists. That could amount to soliciting gifts.

CCA board members — both lobbyist and staffer — are clearly in control of the organization of the events and invite trade associations as guests, not the other way around, as ethics rules require. The guests then pick up the tab and, in exchange, get precious downtime with powerful staffers.

It’s clear that outside sponsorship is required and it’s not against the rules on its face. It’s also clear who the sponsor was, the IPCPR ‘s own press release made it fairly obvious:

Washington, D.C. July 6, 2010 — To celebrate the first anniversary of the Congressional Cigar Association (CCA), virtually all members of the Board of Directors of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) and several of its Associate Members flew into Washington D.C. for an evening of fellowship and camaraderie with some 200 members of the CCA on June 23.

Since the beginning, the IPCPR has been an integral part of the growth of CCA, now with some 150 members, under the leadership of Joe Rowe, executive director, and Chris McCalla, legislative director, with the support and involvement of several retail and associate members of the IPCPR, its Board of Directors under Gary Pesh, and the Board’s Legislative Committee chaired by Ken Neumann, and the Associate Member Advisory Board.

IPCPR’s Washington lobbyists, K&L Gates, were instrumental in organizing the IPCPR teams and their visits with Congressional members and their staffs on the day after the CCA reception.

The second part of HuffPo’s argument that, in exchange for paying for the event, the IPCPR as a sponsor got time outside of the event, wasn’t buried too far in there either:

On the following day, all 24 of the IPCPR representatives broke into four teams, with each team visiting between nine and 11 congressional members or their staffs.

Still, the CCA through Valle claims, with little explanation, no ethics violations occurred:

We sometimes have outside sponsors who’ve been approved by House and Senate ethics committees to make sure it qualifies as a reception

One interesting note, a spokesperson for the Committee on House Administration, who has oversight over the Congressional associations, there are ones for golf, Bible study, etc., said that the Congressional Cigar Association is not on the list of eighteen Congressional Staff associations, although, “It could be a clerical error.”

To recap, were there ethics violations? Coin toss? The spirit of the law, probably broken. The letter of the law? I don’t think there’s any glowing evidence that points to an obvious violation. It’s clear some loopholes were used, but I’m not sure if there were any blatant rules violations. Furthermore, despite calls from Bilbray’s opponent to investigate, the evidence the HuffPo piece centered around doesn’t seem enough for me to believe anything would result from an investigation. Does it look good for anyone? Hell no.



The video above doesn’t help to decry any shadiness or questions regarding the CCA. It was nice to see that the tobacco industry at least answered some questions, whereas it seems the lobbyists and staffers did the smart thing: not enable the HuffPo.

Rep. Bilbray, the Chairman of the Congressional Cigar Association and someone who rarely smokes cigars, claims that he wasn’t aware of the lobbyists involvement. Some of them (Mr. Kim) gave money to Bilbray’s campaign, while others, like Mr. Kline, work for Bilbray in the same area they lobbied. Also remember, Bilbray is a former lobbyist himself and hasn’t been out of the game that long. It raises an obvious question: why a former lobbyist, now congressman, is in charge of a Congressional association for cigars that happens to have a bunch of lobbyists in its ranks, when he doesn’t smoke cigars? It’s neither great timing for Bilbray, who is in the middle of a campaign, nor the cigar world.

Impact on the cigar world?

Before I close, I’d like to take the time to say, what HuffPo found, although seemingly not worthy of an investigation, is serious. This is not some anti-smoking/anti-cigar crusade. Nor is it just an attack from the left on the right. Sure, cigar smoking has been a group that I would describe as more right-leaning, but the emphasis on bipartisanship amongst the staffers as well as the membership proves this was not just a “let’s attack Republican lobbyists.” I don’t blame the Huffington Post for doing what they did, and I don’t see their uncovering the truth as a bad thing. Just because a court of law, or an ethics committee, doesn’t find you guilty doesn’t mean you aren’t wrong. At the end of the day, everyone get’s their own opinion on the situation. “Walking away clean” is not what I would call this.

All publicity is good publicity. My ass. The Huffington Post got it right. The IPCPR won. It proved that not only could it get to members of Congress to discuss the issues the industry faces, but it could bring its members to face-to-face meetings with Congress. However, a win for the IPCPR is not always a win for cigar smokers, or the industry as a whole. The cigar world lost. Seriously, whoever thinks “lobbyist” has a positive connotation is out of their mind. Even if you and your friends at Akin Gump get aroused, every time someone spits out that word, the rest of America hates them. Probably more than they hate tobacco.

How did “Big Tobacco” and “Big Pharma” get their names anyway? It wasn’t R.J. Reynolds fault, it was the combination of the industry and hot shot lobbyists who were able to persuade key members in government to protect their interests. See Thank You for Smoking. Is what the IPCPR  doing bad? No. Especially now, when smoking bans are more popular than Miley Cyrus, but it’s one of those things that you have to make sure your members/constituents know about, and not the rest of the public. You want another good example of this seemingly hypocritical position. Everyone hates pork barrel spending, unless it’s in their district. Seriously, imagine someone running a local campaign on the platform of cutting all government subsidies out of their district. Yeah, now imagine someone running a national campaign on how much pork they increased. You get the idea.

Lobbyists and congressman mingling on roofs of steakhouses with staffers and cigar makers at events funded by the cigar industry’s trade organization? Yeah, we made great strides on the “smoke-filled back room deals” today.

I just hope the IPCPR still lets me into their show. Links for information have been posted within. I’d love to hear other’s thoughts – but please, don’t blame everything on Bush or ask for a raised seal on Obama’s birth certificate.

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Charlie Minato
About the author

I am an editor and co-founder of halfwheel.com/Rueda Media, LLC. I previously co-founded and published TheCigarFeed, one of the two predecessors of halfwheel. I handle the editing of our written content, the majority of the technical aspects of the site and work with the rest of our staff on content management, business development and more. I’ve lived in most corners of the country and now entering my second stint in Dallas, Texas. I enjoy boxing, headphones, the Le Mans 24-hour, wearing sweatshirts year-round and gyros. echte liebe.

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