Politico Report Questions Whitfield's Lobbying Tactics for Bill to Stop Soring Show Horses

Dec 18, 2013

Credit U.S. Congress

Kentucky 1st district Representative Ed Whitfield 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.

Soring is the use of blistering agents or mechanical devices that alter a horse’s gait, often on show horses like Tennessee walking horses.

The bill is causing some controversy because Whitfield’s wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, is a paid lobbyist for the Humane Society. Politico reports the two have even jointly lobbied lawmakers and aides.

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… 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 lobbying with his wife saying that if anyone has a problem with it, they can send a complaint to the House Ethics Committee. He says it’s not an issue because he’s trying to stop animal cruelty, not bring in a financial gain for a large institution.

But the House Ethics Manual says lawmakers can’t give special treatment to anyone, which includes 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.

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 like Melanie Sloan of Citzens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told Politico that the Whitfields could be violating House rules through their joint lobbying for legislation, although she said it isn’t a cut-and-dried case.

“If it were Boeing and they were doing this, it would be a really big deal,” [she] said. 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.

Whitfield said he expects a House vote on his bill next month.