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Not-so-secret Santa: Federal officerholders take in array of gifts throughout the year

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By M.D. Kittle | Watchdog.org

It’s one sweet watch.

The Vulcain Cricket has earned the nickname,“The President’s Watch,” for a reason, adorning the wrists of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan.

In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden got in on the action.

The  veep was presented with a “50s Presidents’ Watch Automatic Steel Vulcain Cricket, by Keijo Paajanen of Helsinki, Finland, according to Biden’s Public Financial Disclosure Report.

HODINKEE, which bills itself as one of the most widely read wristwatch publications in the world, gushed about the watch and its wearer in a November 2011 story headlined, “Spotted: Vice President Joe Biden Wearing New Vulcain Cricket.”

“The watch appears to be bright stainless steel, has the familiar position of the alarm pusher in relation to the crown, looks to be on a same dark alligator strap with curved ends, appears to have a flat sapphire crystal,” the publication dished.  The timepiece had “all signature elements of the 50s Presidents’ Watch Automatic Steel.”

.Photo courtesy of HODINKEE

WATCH THIS: Vice President Joe Biden shows off his gift watch, a Vulcain Cricket, according to wristwatch publication HODINKEE.

At the time, HODINKEE reported the watch was available at retailer Tourneau for $11,650. A recent price check showed the watches priced at between about $1,900 and $6,900. Biden listed the value of the gift at $800.

Biden’s timepiece is part of nearly $700,000 in gifts given to federal politicians, cabinet members, even a Supreme Court justice in 2011 and 2012, according to a disclosure database created for Watchdog.org by campaign finance tracker, the Center for Responsive Politics.

The database, including the most recent information available, tallies more than 200 giving individuals — everyone from officeholder family and friends to key donors and campaigns — ponying up for everything from airline tickets and hotel rooms to wedding gifts, scholarships and cash, lots of cash, for legal defense funds.

In this season of giving, Watchdog.org takes a closer look at the array of gifts found on congressional, executive and judicial disclosure forms.

On with the show

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, it seems, is a fan of awards shows. Holder listed as gifts two tickets, valued at $500 apiece, to the BET Honors. He attended the event with his wife in a “personal capacity,” according to his disclosure documents.

The AG also took in the Trumpet Awards Ceremony. He was reimbursed $497 for airfare and a hotel room. He attended the Communications Award Dinner with his wife, tickets valued at $1,300 and compliments of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters.

And Holder knows it’s only rock and roll but he apparently likes it. The AG and his wife attended gratis the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum’s 16th Annual American Music Masters event, valued at $500. All of the events took place in 2011.

Another Obama administration cabinet member, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, accepted airline tickets and hotel accommodations in Miami at the 2011 Hoop It Up, a national three-on-three basketball tournament. The total value was listed at north of $3,000.

I take thee ...

Federal officeholders get married, too. And weddings come with gifts.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in 2012 married Senate senior staff member and consultant Thomas A. Daffron. She reported some $3,000 in wedding gifts, including a silver serving dish valued at $400 from former Sens. Bob and Elizabeth Dole. The happy couple also received a vase valued at $595 from former Defense Secretary William Cohen, and a painting listed at $550. Collins’ disclosure notes the Senate Ethics Committee granted the wedding waiver.

AP file photo

SENATE WEDDING: U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, marries consultant Thomas A. Daffron in 2012.

Congressional rules set gift limits at less than $100 from any single source in a calendar year, but there are 23 categories of “acceptable gifts” not “tied to any specific dollar amount.” The categories include information materials, commemorative items and free attendance to certain kinds of events.

The ethics committees routinely waive the gifts rule to allow the acceptance of wedding gifts. And members, officers and employees may accept any gift that is given by a relative (including in-laws and fiancés) regardless of value. The same goes for friends, unless there is reason to believe the gift was given based on the lawmaker’s position. If a gift exceeds $250 in value, the recipient must seek written approval from the committee.

Dan Auble, senior researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, said restrictions on what a sitting lawmaker can accept are pretty tight, for obvious reasons.

“But there’s always the fact that you have to get caught,” he said, noting it is difficult to know how much abuse is going on. “If someone is abusing it, they wouldn’t be disclosing it anyway.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., picked up a gift simply for attending a wedding. He reported that he received air transportation and two nights lodging in Honolulu,  a trip valued at $1,100, to attend a donor’s wedding.

Gift defense

A lot of “gifts” go to congressional legal defense funds. And U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., was the king of legal defense fund gifts in 2011-12. He reported a combined total of $150,000 to the fund, including $2,000 from the campaign of former New York representative, failed mayoral candidate and all-around disgraced politician Anthony Weiner.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, picked up about $90,000 for his legal defense fund in 2011. The House Ethics Committee that year ruled Young did not violate law or ethics rules when the fund accepted donations from 12 corporations owned and operated by the same group of related individuals.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., took in nearly $60,000 in gifts for her legal defense fund in 2011 and 2012.

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NO MORE GIFTS: Former U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson, D-California, paid a $10,000 fine for ethics violations.

Former Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., was the beneficiary of a $270 ticket to a Denver Broncos football game, and a ticket to an Indy Car race, valued at $450. That may have not been a problem under House ethics rules, but Richardson found herself in hot water after being accused of bullying and coercing her staff into working for her re-election campaign. An investigation also found she “misused other official resources for campaign purposes.” She agreed to pay a $10,000 fine. She was creamed by 20 percentage points in her reelection bid in 2012.

People person

Perhaps the most unusual gift on the disclosure forms was noted by former U.S. Rep. Gary Leonard Ackerman, D-N.Y. Ackerman, who left office this year after a 30-year career in Congress, listed the source of his gift from “the people.” And what did the people of Long Island give their long-serving congressman? “(T)he blessed opportunity for 30 years to pay back, in some small measure, the good things that happened to me.” The value, according to Ackerman: “Priceless.”

Maybe it wasn’t all that unusual given Ackerman’s colorful personality. The Wall Street Journal noted the congressman was fond of wearing a carnation to Capitol Hill, something he did every day, and lived on a houseboat called Unsinkable II. “The original Unsinkable sank,” the Journal noted.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org

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M.D. Kittle