WASHINGTON -- Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid accepted free ringside tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission to three professional boxing matches while that state agency was trying to influence him on federal regulation of boxing.
Reid, of Nevada, took the free seats for Las Vegas fights from 2003 to 2005 as he was pressing legislation to increase government oversight of the sport, including the creation of a federal boxing commission that Nevada's agency feared might usurp its authority.
Senate ethics rules generally allow lawmakers to accept gifts from federal, state, or local governments, but specifically warn against taking such gifts -- particularly on multiple occasions -- when they might be connected to efforts to influence official actions .
Reid defended the gifts, saying that they would never influence his position on the bill, and that he was trying to learn how his legislation might affect an important home-state industry.
``Anyone from Nevada would say I'm glad he is there taking care of the state's number one businesses," he said.
``I love the fights anyways, so it wasn't like being punished," added the senator, a former boxer and boxing judge.
The Senate ethics manual says, ``Senators and Senate staff should be wary of accepting any gift where it appears that the gift is motivated by a desire to reward, influence, or elicit favorable official action."
The manual cites the 1990s example of an Oregon lawmaker who took gifts for personal use from a South Carolina state university and its president while that school was trying to influence his official actions.
``Repeatedly taking gifts which the Gifts Rule otherwise permits to be accepted may, nonetheless, reflect discredit upon the institution, and should be avoided," the manual says.
Several ethics specialists said Reid should have paid for the tickets, which were close to the ring and worth several hundred to several thousand dollars each, to avoid the appearance he was being influenced by gifts.
Two senators who joined Reid for fights with the complimentary tickets took markedly different steps.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, insisted on paying $1,400 for the tickets he shared with Reid for a 2004 championship fight. Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, accepted free tickets to another fight with Reid, but already had recused himself from Reid's federal boxing legislation because his father was an executive for a Las Vegas hotel that hosts fights.
In an interview Thursday in his Capitol office, Reid defended his decisions to accept the tickets and to take several actions benefiting disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's clients and partners as they donated to him.
``I'm not goody-two-shoes. I just feel these events are nothing I did wrong," Reid said.
Reid had separate meetings in June 2003 in his Senate offices with two Abramoff tribal clients and Edward Ayoob, a former staffer who went to work lobbying with Abramoff.
The meetings occurred over a five-day span in which Ayoob also threw a fund-raiser for Reid at the firm where Ayoob and Abramoff worked that netted numerous donations from Abramoff's partners, firm, and clients.
Reid said he viewed the two official meetings and the fund-raiser as a single event. ``I think it all was one, the way I look at it," he said.
One of the tribes, the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan, donated $9,000 to Reid at the fund-raiser and met with Reid and Ayoob briefly the next morning at Reid's office to discuss federal programs. Reid and the tribal chairman posed for a picture.
Five days earlier, Reid met with Ayoob and the Sac & Fox tribe of Iowa for about 15 minutes to discuss at least two legislative requests. Reid's office said the senator never acted on those requests.
A few months after the fund-raiser, Reid sponsored a spending bill that targeted $100,000 to another Abramoff tribe, the Chitimacha of Louisiana, to pay for a soil erosion study Ayoob was lobbying for. Reid said he sponsored the provision because Louisiana lawmakers sent him a letter requesting it.
Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist, has pleaded guilty in a widespread corruption probe of Capitol Hill. Reid used that conviction earlier this year to accuse Republicans of fostering a culture of corruption inside Congress.
The Associated Press recently reported that Reid also wrote at least four letters favorable to Abramoff's tribal clients around the time Reid collected donations from those clients and Abramoff's partners.
Reid has declined to return the donations, unlike other lawmakers, saying his letters were consistent with his beliefs.
Senate ethics rules require senators to avoid even the appearance that any official meetings or actions they took were in any way connected with political donations.
Reid said he would never change his position because of donations, free tickets, or a request from a staffer-turned-lobbyist.
``People who deal with me and have over the years know that I am an advocate for what I believe in. I always try to do it fair, never take advantage of people on purpose," he said.
Asked whether he would have done anything differently, Reid said his only concern was ``the willingness of the press . . . to take these instances and try to make a big deal out of them."