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How Carolyn Maloney’s Ticket to the Met Gala Led to an Ethics Inquiry

The Met Gala is one of the must-be-seen events on Manhattan’s social calendar, a chance to pose among the biggest names in fashion, film and music on the red-carpeted steps of the Metropolitan Museum.

So when Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat known for her support of the arts, learned in 2016 that she had been dropped from the guest list for that year’s gala, she evidently could not abide it.

Ms. Maloney called up a powerful friend and, in a time-honored New York tradition, appears to have done her own version of trying to sweet-talk her way on the list.

“I received a call this past week from Carolyn,” Emily Kernan Rafferty, the museum’s former president, wrote in an email to its director and a trustee at the time. “She is unhappy to say the least that she is not receiving an invitation to the Party of the Year.”

What happened next ultimately landed Ms. Maloney an invitation, and a night of mingling with celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry and Beyoncé. But in an investigative referral disclosed on Monday, a congressional ethics watchdog contended that her cajoling — including reminding the Met “how much she does for the Met” — may have violated House ethics rules or federal laws that bar lawmakers from soliciting gifts, including invitations.

In a deadpan 15-page report disclosing an investigation of the House Oversight Committee chairwoman dating back to February, the Office of Congressional Ethics said it had found “substantial reason to believe that Rep. Maloney may have solicited or accepted impermissible gifts associated with her attendance at the Met Gala.”

With Ms. Maloney, 76, set to retire next month after losing her seat in a bruising primary contest, it is unlikely that she will face any real punishment. The ethics office, an independent entity, referred the matter to the bipartisan House Ethics committee in June, while Ms. Maloney was fighting for re-election. The committee only made it public on Monday, saying it was still under review.

But the report — which included private Metropolitan Museum communications, and interviews with high-level former museum officials and Ms. Maloney herself — is an embarrassing coda to three decades of service for one of the most powerful women in Congress.

Ms. Maloney and her lawyers repeatedly denied that her actions were improper, and said that she never explicitly requested a ticket to the 2016 event, known officially as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Benefit, much less traded favors for one.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Maloney said that the congresswoman “strongly disagrees” with the referral and was “confident that the House Ethics Committee will dismiss this matter.”

The Met sits on the border of Ms. Maloney’s wealthy district on the East Side of Manhattan, and while she does not currently represent it, she has worked closely with the museum over the years to secure federal funding and promote its exhibitions.

It is unclear why, exactly, Ms. Maloney was initially cut from the 2016 gala guest list. Event organizers often invite top New York City government officials to attend at no charge (tables reportedly can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for those who pay), and Ms. Maloney had attended in the past.

The report included an internal museum memo dated July 2015 enumerating the list of government officials who should be invited to the gala the following May. Then-Mayor Bill de Blasio tops the list, which included Scott Stringer, the comptroller; Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker; and City Council members like Daniel Garodnick and Helen Rosenthal.

Ms. Maloney’s name was crossed out, and she was evidently displeased when she found out. She called Ms. Rafferty, who had just stepped down as the Met’s president, in late March or early April, according to an email included in the ethics report.

“She went on about how much she does for the Met, always responsive when you call, and proactive re the institution’s concerns in DC,” Ms. Rafferty wrote. “She has been coming to the party for years, and it is the one thing she cares about.”

Ms. Rafferty concluded by recommending that space be made for Ms. Maloney to attend.

The email is the centerpiece of the report’s findings. House rules and federal law have carve outs for members of Congress to attend charitable events like the Met gala for free, but the report states, “members may only accept unsolicited offers of free attendance.” The report contends that Ms. Maloney’s invitation was solicited.

In an interview with investigators, Ms. Maloney said she did not recall the conversation. And in a separate memo to investigators, her lawyers, Sam C. Neel and Stephen M. Ryan, disputed the ethics’ office conclusion that the call or other evidence constituted a request or solicitation.

“Conspicuously absent from these statements, however, is any mention that Chairwoman Maloney requested an invitation to the 2016 Met Gala or threatened to withhold support due to her exclusion from the event,” they wrote.

The committee’s report suggested that the 2016 brouhaha may have helped secure Ms. Maloney tickets for years to come. If so, she has since used them to press her top legislative priorities: In 2019, she wore a firefighter’s jacket to the gala, in support of efforts to fund Sept. 11-related health benefits; two years later, her yellow, green and purple dress‌‌ calling for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment turned heads.

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