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How a Met Gala invite from Anna Wintour may have landed AOC in hot water with the House Ethics Committee

Kelsey Vlamis   

How a Met Gala invite from Anna Wintour may have landed AOC in hot water with the House Ethics Committee
  • The House Ethics Committee has said it's investigating Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
  • The inquiry could be related to a complaint about Ocasio-Cortez attending the Met Gala in 2021.

After the House Ethics Committee on Wednesday announced an investigation into Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, some speculated it was was triggered by a complaint about her attendance at the Met Gala in 2021 — but whether or not it's an ethics violation all depends on how she got the ticket.

Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Gala in September 2021, famously wearing an all-white dress with "TAX THE RICH" scrawled across the back in bright red. The following day, the conservative American Accountability Foundation filed a complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics, accusing the New York Democrat of violating House rules on accepting gifts by attending the event.

In June, the OCE, a non-partisan body, referred the complaint to the House Ethics Committee. The committee said Wednesday the investigation would be extended into 2023, but did not provide additional details.

Whether or not Ocasio-Cortez attending the Met Gala constituted an ethics violation comes down to who paid for her ticket, according to Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group and think tank.

"If a lobbying entity paid for the ticket, then it would be a violation of the gift rule, but I have no reason to believe it was provided by any lobbying entity," Holman said, noting that the Met Gala has said it provided the ticket to the congresswoman.

The Met Gala is a black-tie annual charity event that fundraises for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. Tickets to the star-studded event can cost $35,000 while tables can go for $300,000. Last year the gala raised more than $16.4 million.

House rules include detailed restrictions on gifts that can be accepted by members of Congress, in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest. The rule list some exemptions, including free attendance at "widely-attended events" or "charity events."

Under the charity event exemption, the rules state a lawmaker may accept an "unsolicited offer of free attendance" to an event if its "primary purpose" is fundraising, or if more than half of the proceeds are charitable contributions.

"When it comes to a charity event, the whole factor is who paid for the ticket," Holman said, adding that "the invitation has to come directly from the organizer of the charity event."

For instance, if Facebook purchased a Met Gala table and gifted one of its seats to a lawmaker, that could constitute an ethics violation. But, as far as what's publicly known, Ocasio-Cortez was invited directly by the Met Gala.

AAF argued in its complaint Ocasio-Cortez was invited by an "agent of a for-profit company," citing reporting that Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue and executive at Conde Nast, has final say over the event's guest list.

Wintour has served as an official co-chair or honorary chair of the Met Gala nearly every year since 1995.

In an email to Insider on Wednesday, Tom Jones, the president of AAF, reiterated their stance, saying that just because Conde Nast and Wintour "launder their invitation by slapping the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute's logo on the top of their invite should not make the gift any more permissible." He did not address questions about how Ocasio-Cortez's attendance differed from other lawmakers in the past.

Members of Congress and New York officials have previously attended the Met Gala without raising ethics complaints, including Sen. Mitt Romney in 2018 and Hillary Clinton, then a US senator, in 2001.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney also attended the Met Gala on several occasions — and became the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation this year. However, unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Maloney has been accused of pushing organizers for an invitation in 2016 after she wasn't initially invited, which could violate the ethics rules.

The fact that Ocasio-Cortez's case was also referred to the committee means the OCE thought the complaint against her warranted further investigation. Holman said he thought the OCE, which does not have subpoena power, referred the case so the committee could "bring people in under the force of law and get them to say who paid for the ticket."

Holman said as far as he was aware, there was nothing exceptional or notable about Ocasio-Cortez's attendance at the Met Gala — except perhaps the congresswoman herself.

"AOC is politically controversial and she made it even more controversial with that dress."

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