When Anna Wintour and the Met roll out the red carpet for the annual Costume Institute gala, it doesn’t roll for free. Tickets to the event, fashion’s biggest night of the year, can run to $30,000 — if you can even get one. So when U.S. representative Carolyn Maloney, who represented New York’s 12th District (the Met is on its border) from 1993 until this year, found she wasn’t invited to the 2016 gala, she was displeased and secured her usual invitation by all means necessary. What happened in between is the subject of a report released this week by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which recommended further review because of “substantial reason to believe that she solicited or accepted impermissible gifts associated with her attendance.” (Doing so would be in violation of both House rules and federal law.)
The outcome is not clear. The bipartisan ethics committee will decide whether to pursue the investigation further, a decision that may hinge in part on the fact that Maloney is retiring when the new Congress is sworn in next month. (She lost her seat recently when redistricting combined her former district with that of her west-side counterpart, Representative Jerry Nadler, making for a primary between two of New York’s most senior Democrats, in which Nadler ultimately triumphed.)
Lawyers for Maloney argued that, while there was communication between the representative and members of the Met’s staff, she “did not impermissibly solicit an invitation to The Met Gala because she did not request an invitation to the event.” (Among the exhibits produced by OCE was an email from former Met president Emily Kernan Rafferty saying Maloney was “unhappy to say the least that she is not receiving an invitation to the Party of the Year.”) But the case rests on whether Maloney specifically asked for an invitation, and her lawyers contend that no evidence produced by the OCE actually demonstrates that she did so. “Representative Maloney is confident that the House Ethics Committee will dismiss this matter,” says Adrien Lesser, a spokeswoman for the congresswoman. “Although the Committee has not made any determination a violation occurred, she is disappointed by the unproven and disputed allegations in the report issued by Office of Congressional Ethics and strongly disagrees with its referral. In three decades of honorable service in Congress, Representative Maloney had never before been accused of any ethical improprieties.”
Congressional gift rules do not prohibit free attendance at “widely attended” charitable events, and, in an interview with investigators in May, Maloney said she could not recall her exact conversations with Met staff. Whatever they were, Maloney was ultimately invited to the 2016 gala and every one thereafter. (She has often used the occasion to spotlight projects about which she is passionate, including a bill to support health-care benefits to 9/11 first responders, which she promoted by wearing a firefighter’s jacket.) She is among several New York City politicians who frequently attend the gala, including the mayor and members of the City Council.
She is also, as the OCE acknowledged, a longtime supporter of the museum. The office’s report notes the $2.75 million Maloney secured for the museum between 2003 and 2011 and the delegation Maloney led at the outset of the pandemic requesting billions in federal assistance for nonprofit museums including the Met. Less flatteringly, the office produced an email from an anonymous Met staffer about the potential cost of overlooking friendly politicians like Maloney at its biggest night of the year.
“I do think it is important to note that during the period when we limited/reduced government officials attending, we saw a significant drop in new capital allocation to the Met,” this person wrote in 2018. “In fact during that entire period we only secured $300,000 from the City Council even when $5, $7 even $10 million was earmarked in the past. In fact during budget advocacy when presenting the Museum’s request for new funding we were told by one Council Member to ‘get Anna to pay for it.’”