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Abramoff Scandal Is Scaring Off Customers, D.C. Restaurants Say

August 31, 2006
By Annie Shuppy

May 9 (Bloomberg) -- Jeff Buben wonders how his two Washington, D.C., restaurants changed from places where lawmakers enjoyed lunch to potential crime scenes.

``The business of Washington is done in restaurants,'' said Buben, chef-owner of Bistro Bis and Vidalia. ``To put restaurants at the end of the barrel, say that's where criminal activity is being done -- that's ridiculous.''

Buben and fellow restaurateurs in the nation's capital are steaming over a bill that would outlaw one of the town's enduring traditions: free meals for lawmakers courtesy of a friendly K Street influence peddler. The mere idea that it's not good to be seen noshing with lobbyists these days is crimping business at some local eateries.

``I've noticed a change,'' said John Breaux, who has observed congressional mores for more than three decades as a Louisiana representative and senator and now as senior counsel for Patton Boggs LLP, the city's biggest lobbying firm by revenue. ``It's a lot of lobbyists eating with each other.''

When he has dined with elected officials, Breaux said, they have been more eager to pick up the tab. ``They're very careful in saying they've got it,'' Breaux said.

This unhappy turn of events for the city's culinary trade stems from the doings of one-time super lobbyist and major Republican fundraiser Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt public officials, a scandal that has gripped Washington and continues to spread.

Yesterday, the former chief of staff to Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, pleaded guilty to charges related to the Abramoff case, as have a former spokesman and a former chief of staff for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Cloud of Scandal

Abramoff was also a restaurateur and may have been the first one hurt by the scandal; business at his Signatures, a popular hangout for lobbyists and lawmakers, tanked when word got out that he was under investigation, and the restaurant has shut down.

Now the cloud of scandal is hanging over other restaurants that bank on customers from Capitol Hill and K Street, where many lobbyists have offices. ``There are people we used to see daily or two or three times a week that we now see two or three times a month,'' said Tom Townsend, vice president of operations for the B. Smith Restaurant Group, which operates B. Smith's in Union Station, a 10-minute walk from the Capitol.

B. Smith's has lost roughly 20 percent of the lobbyists who used to come in on a regular basis, and ``people that do come in are spending less,'' Townsend said.

After Abramoff

The restaurant, which specializes in Creole, Cajun and Southern food, is offering coupons, specials and price cuts to broaden its market. ``It's in response to a change in our demographic, especially at lunch, and that does have to do with lobbying issues,'' Townsend said.

As part of a post-Abramoff crackdown, the Senate in March approved a bill that would outlaw free meals from lobbyists. A House measure passed last week rejected a ban in favor of retaining the current $49.99 cap on how much the meals cost. The bills must now be reconciled.

``We're basically open to a discussion with our colleagues in the Senate,'' on the meals question, said Representative David Dreier, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Rules Committee.

``I think they're going to have something happen that's going to be very restrictive,'' Patton Boggs's Breaux said.

The issue has created an ``aura of paranoia'' among Capitol Hill diners, said Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. Breaux, who isn't related to John Breaux, said association members are complaining that regular customers are canceling reservations for meals and other gatherings.

NRA Lobbies

The Washington-based National Restaurant Association, the industry's lobbying group, says it has written to all members of Congress asking that they ``not needlessly restrict this interaction between those who make the law and those who must live under it.'' The NRA wants to preserve the current cap system, though it supports proposals for greater disclosure of meals provided by lobbyists.

``Certainly neither you nor your staff makes policy decisions based on a meal,'' wrote Steven C. Anderson, the group's chief executive officer, and John Gay, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy. Gay, the association's top lobbyist, said he's spoken out against a ban with ``dozens'' of lawmakers and congressional aides. He has met over lunch with some Hill staffers, a number of whom have insisted on paying their own way, he said.

`Undue Advantage'

The debate is dividing Congress along roughly partisan lines. ``There is an undue advantage given to those who are able to take a member or senior staff member out for a meal,'' Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, sponsor of the meal-ban amendment in the Senate, said when it passed in March.

Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi opposes the ban. ``I'm always insulted,'' he said in an interview last week, that people think ``I could be bought for a meal.''

Lott said he finds even the present system, with its spending limit, ``embarrassing'' because it forces lawmakers to calculate how much is being spent on them. ``How infantile all of that is!'' Lott said.

Some popular dining spots for the lobbying-lawmaking set say they haven't seen an appreciable change in business, at least not yet. A number of regular clients have indicated they will have to be ``more cautious in who they dine with'' in the current climate, though, said Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak.

Tommy Jacomo, general manager of The Palm, said he hasn't noticed a dip in patronage since the lobbying controversy hit. If the law changes, ``that's another story,'' he said.
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