By Sharon Otterman
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., made international headlines when she wore a white gown scrawled with the words “Tax the Rich” to the star-studded Met Gala in New York in September 2021. But now, congressional investigators have found “substantial reason to believe” that she might have violated House ethics rules and perhaps federal law by accepting gifts associated with the event.
At issue are the payments for the rental of the dress, jewelry, shoes and bag she wore to the event, as well as the costs of her makeup, hair, transportation and about $5,000 for a share of rooms at the Carlyle Hotel, where she prepared for the gala.
Her campaign did eventually pay for all the costs from her personal accounts, as required by law. But it did so only after the House Ethics Committee began an inquiry into the issue in March 2022, an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics found.
“It appears several thousands of dollars’ worth of services may have remained unpaid” had it not been for the ethics office beginning its review, the office found.
The House Ethics Committee disclosed last week that it decided in December to extend its review of the matter. An 18-page report, as well as some 300 pages of transcripts and other evidence, was made public on March 2.
Ethics rules prevent members of Congress from accepting gifts such as “a gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value.”
They are permitted to attend charity events, but only if invited by the organization hosting the event. Ocasio-Cortez and her partner, Riley Roberts, were originally invited to the $35,000-per-ticket event as guests of Vogue, and not by the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself, the review found. But because Vogue, and its long-time editorial director, Anna Wintour, are deeply involved in organizing the event, the investigators found the invitation permissible.
“The committee notes that the mere fact of conducting further review of a referral, and any mandatory disclosure of such further review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred,” the Ethics Committee’s bipartisan leadership wrote in a statement.
David Mitrani, counsel for Ocasio-Cortez, responded that the Office for Congressional Ethics had not found an ethics violation, only delays in paying vendors for the costs.
“The congresswoman finds these delays unacceptable, and she has taken several steps to ensure nothing of this nature will ever happen again,” he wrote in a letter to the committee. “However, while regrettable, this matter definitively does not rise to the level of a violation of House Rules or of federal law.”
He added: “There is no evidence that she ever intended to avoid these expenses.”
After the September gala, several vendors, including those who did Ocasio-Cortez’s hair and makeup, tried repeatedly to follow up with her staff for payment. However, the congresswoman said in testimony that she did not know about the delays and that she always intended to pay.
Condé Nast staffers helped arrange for the congresswoman to have her hair done by a stylist, which led to a $478 bill, and a makeup bill for $345, according to congressional ethics investigators. The custom dress, shoes, handbag and jewelry were provided as rentals from designer Aurora James, and initially led to a bill for about $2,300, but that was revised later to about $990.
Aurora James, and her company, Brother Vellies, identified $5,580 in additional unpaid goods and services once they were contacted by congressional investigators, which included transportation to and from the gala, the congresswoman’s share of room charges at the Carlyle, and about $400 for shoes and a bow tie for Roberts. Ocasio-Cortez then paid this bill.
“It just really seems that there was a ball that was dropped,” she told investigators. “It is just a deeply regrettable situation. I feel terrible for especially the small businesses that were impacted.”
Cortez set the internet aflame with her decision to wear the distinctive dress, with some progressive thinkers wondering if she was mocking them by wearing a leftist slogan to an elite event, and some conservatives pointing to the dress as a sign of hypocrisy. She defended it as a way to publicize a message she believed in.
James, Brother Vellies and Janna Pea, a publicist for Brother Vellies, declined to cooperate with House investigators. The Office for Congressional Ethics has recommended that they be subpoenaed as the review continues.