Month: July 2019

For lawyers and lobbyists at gift season, it’s never just the thought that counts

For every federal employee or journalist prohibited from accepting anything because of ethics rules, there are thousands of other private sector professionals — lawyers, investment bankers, lobbyists and more — who both send and receive generous gifts every December.

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The trick, of course, is picking just the right gift: something memorable, and appropriate, that will impress important clients and valued employees.

But corporate gifts are fraught with all the same baggage as personal gift giving. And everyone who says it’s the thought that counts is lying. They’re judging.

Which is why that traditional fruit basket, big and impressive as it looks, may not really dazzle.

“People want clever more than they want expensive,” says David Adler, founder of BizBash, an online guide for corporate events and promotion. “Surprise and delight — that is the holy grail of marketing. Gifting is now about storytelling.”

The Tiny Jewel Box, D.C.’s go-to store for estate and antique jewelry, sits on Connecticut Avenue just a stone’s throw from some of Washington’s biggest law firms and trade associations. Which is why it has a corporate gift division with a separate staff just for business clients. Holiday orders, placed mostly in September and October by marketing or HR departments at various firms, account for 30 percent of the store’s corporate business.

The best selling items, every year, come from the Federal Collection, an exclusive series of made-in-America, high-end decorative boxes and collectibles popular with lobbyists and other folks based in the nation’s capital. “In Washington, there’s a certain restraint that you don’t necessarily find in other markets,” says TJB President Matt Rosenheim. “There’s a different definition of elegance and a pushback on lavish.”

The collection is popular, he says, because it appeals to a certain level of education and sophistication: The items incorporate historical images, vintage maps, art, architecture — things that people find intellectually interesting rather than blingy. If gifts tell a story, these say, “You’ve got a guy in Washington. We’re here in D.C. taking care of your Washington business.”

The vast majority of corporate gifts run $50 to $300 per piece, although Rosenheim does well in the $500 to $2,500 range and, for the most important of the VIP clients, $8,000 Swiss watches. Regardless of budget, the name of the game in business giving is “perceived value, so we need to create a $100 gift that looks like a $500 gift.” That’s easy to do with a custom item, because clients can’t Google the price. But it doesn’t appeal to every buyer: Some want to give an iconic and branded item (usually something really expensive) so recipients know exactly how much it costs.

It’s always a fine line between too little and too much: “There is definitely a threshold where it becomes too lavish and there’s a concern about the message that it sends,” he says.

The recession hit corporate giving hard. Companies stopped giving client gifts for a while, although they quietly rewarded top performers internally. The holiday business has inched back to pre-2008 levels, but it changed: Companies have moved away from centralized gifts — the same item to every client — to a more decentralized approach on which executives pick out personalized gifts for clients they work with all year.

Rosenheim sells custom pieces, like the “Constitution decoupage box,” designed to sit on a desk or credenza and preaches the staying power of something that’s a visual reminder of the giver for years to come. “That’s why I discourage people from doing consumables — you give them a gift basket, it’s eaten, it’s done.” He’s also not a big fan of tech gadgets, which the recipient is likely to already own or become quickly outdated.

A great corporate gift is, of course, in the eye of the seller: A wine vendor tells you there’s nothing more festive than a great bottle of champagne, a gourmet store argues that everyone loves specialty treats at Christmas. It’s hard enough to buy a good present for someone you know well; harder still for someone who you bill by the hour.

That’s one reason patriotic themes are so popular with Washington-based offices. Americana has always been the big draw at Ann Hand, the design firm founded by the D.C. jeweler who created the now iconic gold eagle and pearl brooch that has adorned every A-List shoulder and remains her all-time bestselling product.

Her holiday corporate sales are almost all political, military and patriotic-themed brooches, cuff links and lapel pins, or ties and scarves. “A scarf or tie is something they’re drawn to because most people will wear silk and it fits everybody,” Hand says . Her olive branch pin is especially popular this year.

Her items range from $45 to $100 for smaller pieces, but many of her clients spend $500 to $800 per gift.

Her business accounts are primarily men, and many come back year after year. They’re escorted to the second floor of her Georgetown store, where she unveils a variety of options on the table in front of them and they decide what they want and how many.

“They’re out the door in 30 minutes and have done all their shopping,” Hand says.

Back in the day (we’re talking 35 years ago) business giving in Washington was divided into two camps: inexpensive gifts — holiday turkeys or poinsettias — presented to politicians and the occasional over-the-top largesse for those less constrained by official rules.

When David Adler was running the society magazine Washington Dossier in the late 1970s, he received a number of gifts from wealthy Washingtonians eager to curry his favor. But none topped Ardeshir Zahedi, the famously charming and indulgent Iranian ambassador representing the soon-to-be-deposed shah.

“He would send cases of Dom Perignon along with caviar by the bucket,” Adler says . Memorable, even 40 years later. Those days are long gone; diplomats now give tasteful coffee table books or calendars depicting scenes from their country.

Corporate executives have a harder task — they have to come up with gifts that reflect their brand without being too promotional, but still stand above the fray.

“Experiential is the biggest gift-giving trend,” Adler says. “Events are the new luxury.” Tickets to, say, the Super Bowl or the U.S. Open are “like gold.”

Another trending theme is “purposeful” gifts: something environmentally conscious or a donation to charity. For companies that choose to send an actual present, there are more “concept baskets” of artfully curated items inspired by current pop culture obsessions: “Downton Abbey” teas and sweets, for example.

Even white shoe law firms, those bastions of tradition and quiet elegance, are under pressure to give something innovative. Today clients are both more demanding and discerning, quick to dismiss the obvious or the run-of-the-mill.

“Now, it’s all about personalization,” says one local executive, who has worked in business development for a number of Washington’s top law firms. Most offices now use “CRM”: client relationship management software that tracks birthdays, anniversaries, hobbies and other personal information.

A number of firms now expect individual partners to select and personally buy gifts for their own clients. Given the number of mergers and other financial sensitivities in big law, more are choosing less conspicuous gifts or gatherings. Last week, an international firm hosted an exclusive reception at D.C.’s Metropolitan Club, where partners spent two hours schmoozing their top 700 customers instead of sending individual presents to their offices. “These parties cost $200 a person to entertain at that level,” she says. “I think the client appreciates it more than a gift.”

Another trend: holiday parties created as family events, like one recently at the Kennedy Center where clients could bring their children and still network. “It was a huge hit,” she says, “because these people work all the time.”

This year, businessman Winston Lord had to come up with a corporate gift that is “creative, quirky, fun and memorable — on a limited budget.” The chief marketing officer of Venga, a start-up that supplies data to restaurants, wanted something that his customers would use and remember.

He has three Harry and David fruit boxes on his desk, and he can’t say who gave them to him. Portable phone chargers, the go-to corporate present this year, are practical and fun, and he’s already received six or seven of them. “It’s all appreciated, but nothing really stands out,” he explains.

His four-year-old company is still trying to build relationships in the restaurant industry, so he decided to create a 2015 calendar as this year’s gift. Each month features company execs in food-themed photos recreating famous movie scenes; Lord is July’s cover boy, being doused with macaroni a la the bath scene in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

“They’ll open it up and get a laugh,” he says. “I’m not expecting them to put it on their home refrigerator. But maybe the office refrigerator.”

Supreme Court faces politically charged election-year docket

The nine justices enter the next decade of the Roberts court likely to confront issues that animate the political agenda: the legality of racial preferences to encourage diversity; how far government must go to accommodate religious liberty; how far government may go to restrict a woman’s right to abortion.

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The last term ended on a high note for liberals, with a landmark decision finding a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. It was the first time since John Roberts Jr. debuted as chief justice 10 years ago that, in some of the court’s most closely contested and important decisions, the court’s liberal minority attracted one conservative or another to consistently prevail.

Few look for a repeat based on the issues the court will hear this term.

“I would expect a return to the norm, in which the right side of the court wins a majority, but by no means all, of the big cases,” said Irv Gornstein, head of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown Law Center.

“The big question for this term is, how big will the big wins be?”

The court already has a track record on the likely marquee cases of the term, and that record is giving the right a reason to be optimistic.

Back for further review are the affirmative-action remedies employed by the University of Texas to increase diversity at the flagship campus in Austin. The court has previously expressed its skepticism about these measures.

The contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act is also making a return. The court already told the government last year, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that the mandate can impinge on the religious freedoms of employers directed to carry it out.

And, because the court long ago decided that states may impose some restrictions on abortion, the question in a coming case will be, how far may they go before it becomes an “undue burden” on a woman’s right? The court has provided little guidance on what that term means.

The pivotal justice on each issue will probably be Justice Anthony Kennedy. The issues all appeal to Kennedy’s conservative side, but he does not always share the zeal for dramatic change that his colleagues on the right might pursue.

“I have the greatest respect for him, but I long ago gave up trying to predict him,” conservative U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson III said recently at a panel discussion at William and Mary Law School.

“The best thing you can do is issue one of those weather forecasts that says sunny with considerable clouds and a chance of rain.”

Conservatives long ago gave up on Kennedy as a reliable vote, but the surprise of the summer and fall is the suspicion with which many now view Roberts.

At the most recent debate of Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz, R–Texas, bluntly called Roberts a “mistake.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said Roberts “did not have a proven, extensive record” when his brother President George W. Bush chose him, and he pledged that he would not make “politically expedient” choices for the court.

Dozens of conservative activists last weekend signed on to letter from former attorney general Edwin Meese calling for the next president to appoint justices such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. – no mention of Roberts.

The case against Roberts consists almost entirely of his votes upholding the Affordable Care Act. In 2012, he wrote the opinion turning down a constitutional challenge to President Obama’s signature domestic achievement. In June, Roberts and Kennedy were part of a 6-to-3 decision that rejected a reading of the law that would have drastically cut back the number of Americans it covered.

On the other side of the ideological ledger, Roberts has voted to restrict abortion rights, overturn campaign finance restrictions, recognize a Second Amendment right for individual gun ownership, and severely cut back the reach of the Voting Rights Act.

Studies have shown him to be one of the modern justices most protective of business interests. He is a consistent supporter of the death penalty, an issue that bitterly divides the court and which will be again be a common thread on the term’s docket.

Any change in even a single justice could tilt the balance of the court, and many predict that the next president may have the chance to nominate as many as three members of the court.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia and Kennedy will all be in their 80s on Inauguration Day 2017, and liberal Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78. The court currently has five Republican nominees and four chosen by Democratic presidents.

Ginsburg was the lone member of the court to find no fault with the University of Texas’s unique admissions policy when the court first considered it in 2013.

Most of the university’s freshmen are admitted under a unique plan in which the top students at every Texas high school are accepted. Because many of the schools are segregated, this makes for a diverse population. To fill out the rest of the class, admissions officials say they use a holistic approach in which race is one of the factors considered.

An appeals court upheld the plan as being consistent with the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on when race could be considered. But the justices sent it back and told the lower court to demand more proof from University of Texas officials that they could not ensure diversity without resorting to racial classifications. The appellate judges again sided with the university, and challengers of the plan are returning to Supreme Court.

Kennedy has never ruled in favor of an affirmative-action plan, but he also has refused to join conservative colleagues in saying race can never be considered. Kennedy “really believes in the value of integration,” said Georgetown’s Gornstein, but at the same time “he desperately wants it to be achieved by race-neutral means.”

The court has yet to accept the abortion or contraception cases for this term, but they are considered highly probable.

The former case concerns new restrictions on abortion providers that have been enacted by states around the country, such as requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and that clinics must meet surgical standards that abortion providers say are unnecessary and prohibitively expensive.

At issue is whether the standards put an undue burden on women seeking abortions, a standard the Supreme Court set in a 1992 case, Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey. Kennedy was one of the justices who set the standard.

The court is likely to look at Texas’s new law, and “I think it will be the most important case since Casey,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

“It will give us some guidance on the meaning of the undue burden standard and how courts should evaluate the multitude of abortion restrictions that are coming out of the states.”

The contraception case would be a sequel to the court’s decision last year that some private employers do not have to comply with the ACA mandate to provide employees with health plans that include contraceptives when this violates the owners’ religious beliefs.

This time, it is religious organizations such as hospitals, charities and universities that want to be freed from the requirement.

The Obama administration has provided an accommodation for objectors, which would allow them to object in writing and then have third-party insurers or the government to step in to provide the cost-free care. But the organizations say any involvement violates their religious liberties.

Seven appeals courts have agreed with the government, but an eighth recently sided with challengers. That almost requires the court to settle the conflict, and the Obama administration recently also asked the court to step in.

Two other cases on the court docket also have partisan overtones.

One concerns whether public employee unions may collect a fee from nonmembers to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Challengers say that violates the First Amendment rights of those who don’t want to pay for union speech with which they disagree. The unions say the fees are warranted because they are obligated to represent all public employees, whether or not they are union members.

The political context is that public employee unions, which overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, are powerful players in elections. A loss would weaken them at the same time the court has made it easier for wealthy individuals and corporations to spend unlimited amounts on elections.

And a challenge to the way almost every state draws electoral districts presents a partisan dilemma. States use total population numbers from the census to meet a constitutional requirement that they are roughly balanced for “one person, one vote.”

But conservative groups are challenging that, saying the districts should be drawn based on the number of eligible voters in the districts. Most analysts say that would hurt urban areas with larger numbers of children and noncitizens – most likely to trend Democratic – and shift the power to more rural, less ethnic areas that tend to vote Republican.

“Anytime the court is asked to engage in policing the electoral process, there is a risk of the results appearing to be partisan,” said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown.

Cord-cutting isn’t killing Comcast

Comcast did lose 69,000 video customers over the course of the quarter, but that always happens this time of year.

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The company has actually lost customers in the second quarter in six of the last eight years. Last year it lost more than twice as many customers as it did this year during the same period, an indication that 2015 hasn’t been so bad, after all.

It wasn’t supposed to be easy for cable companies this year. HBO Now and Sling TV led a batch of new Internet video offerings, and Netflix added almost a million subscribers in the U.S. last quarter. This quarter will be a “put up or shut up time for the cord-cutting thesis,” industry analyst Craig Moffett wrote in a note to analysts earlier this month. On average, analysts expected Comcast to lose 112,000 customers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Comcast attributed its strength to a sincere attempt at customer service, bolstered by improved technology that keeps people from having to call its representatives as often, and on its X1 cable boxes. The devices have gotten consistently positive reviews, and one-third of Comcast’s triple play subscribers now use them. The company’s theory seems to be that people who are tempted to cancel their cable service can be convinced to stay by experiential-rather than financial-incentives.

On the financial side, there’s continued increase in a metric that investors refer to as “average revenue per user” and customers refer to as “the cable bill.” The cable company’s average subscriber paid $143.48 per month, up 4.5 percent from a year ago.

Even if Comcast does lose customers to cord-cutting, higher bills for existing customers more than compensate for it. In the forecast that Moffett put out earlier this month, he predicted that Comcast would lose 113,000 video subscribers over the next five years, while also increasing the amount that each one pays by about $16. Even without Comcast’s other business-high-speed Internet, NBC’s thriving broadcast network business, theme parks-the old-fashioned cable company seems to be surviving just fine in the brave new world.

‘Chapo’ Guzmán’s prison guards reportedly played solitaire while he escaped

And perhaps that’s what the two prison guards at Mexico’s Altiplano maximum-security prison were pondering when, instead of guarding the world’s most famous drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, they were playing solitaire.

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While they were immersed in the game, Guzmán slipped out of his cell in July through a hole in the shower, according to a report in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper.

A lot has been written since Guzmán tunneled out of jail over the summer, but not much of it has clarified who helped him or how. There have been reports that the tunnel-building wasn’t much of a secret in the prison before his escape, that other inmates and guards could hear loud noises as his accomplices cut through the concrete floor of his cell.

The El Universal story, by prominent columnist Carlos Loret de Mora, raises the possibility that garden-variety office ennui might have been a factor. It said Juan Carlos Sánchez Garcia and José Daniel Aureoles Tabares, two agents from the Mexican intelligence service, had initially told investigators that their computer screens froze minutes before Guzmán’s escape at 9 p.m. on July 11 and that they made more than two dozen frantic calls when they realized he had disappeared. But a judge in the confidential proceedings has determined that at the time of the escape the two men were playing cards and that other computer screens were turned off, according to the report. It remains unclear whether the inattention was intentional.

One of Guzmán’s attorneys, Juan Pablo Badillo, declined to comment about the allegation, as did the attorney general’s office, which is investigating the case.

Guzmán’s escape, a year after he was imprisoned, was a massive embarrassment for the Mexican government. At least 13 prison officials, including the top official at the Altiplano facility, have been arrested. Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel has been known to buy off public officials at all levels of government to grease the group’s drug-trafficking operations. So even if solitaire was involved, that distraction probably was a bit player in this drama.