When Congress recessed last August, many lawmakers seized on the opportunity to return to their home states for a much-needed break.
Dozens of others, however, accepted invitations to take “educational” trips to destinations all around the world — South Africa, Mongolia, Israel, Colombia, Cameroon and Japan, among other destinations — often on the dime of nonprofit organizations that are so closely affiliated with advocacy groups that the differences are all but indistinguishable.
Private groups spent $2.1 million that month sending lawmakers and their aides (and in some cases their spouses and other family members) on trips both in the United States and overseas, according to records maintained by the website LegiStorm.
Though Congress amended its ethics rules just five years ago to restrict lobbyists and the organizations that employ them from sponsoring most forms of Congressional travel, many of the summertime sojourns were financed by nonprofit organizations that share missions, employees, addresses and even phone numbers with lobbying organizations.
Because the nonprofits and the advocacy groups are separate and distinct on paper, lawmakers were able to accept the trip invitations without running afoul of Congressional ethics rules.
“It’s the single largest problem we now have with the Congressional travel rules, and it was not how it was supposed to be,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, who worked with a coalition of government watchdog groups to help draft the travel rules enacted in 2007. Government watchdog groups say travel financed by organizations so closely linked to lobbying interests are exactly the sort of trips the new restrictions were supposed to eliminate.
Private groups spent more money on Congressional travel last August than in any month since the changes took effect. (The monthly record was set when outside interests spent $2.6 million during August 2003.) The sheer number of trips and their high costs helped propel the year-end total to nearly $6 million, the most since outside interests shelled out $10.4 million to send lawmakers and staffers on trips during 2004.
Experts expect the spending will continue to grow.
‘The AIPAC Loophole’
Last August’s surge was due in large part to three separate trips to Israel — two for Republican lawmakers and staffers, one for Democrats — that cost more than $1.5 million. The travel was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable nonprofit that shares leaders, employees and money with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the capital’s most formidable foreign policy lobbying forces.
According to its new website, in “addition to making grants for AIPAC programs, the Foundation funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials. These AIEF-sponsored trips help educate political leaders and influentials about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite.”
AIEF spent $2 million last year sending about 150 lawmakers and their aides — and dozens of family members — to Israel. The way it educates lawmakers about policies on which AIPAC lobbies has become a template for Congressional travel that is being replicated by other nonprofits that are affiliated with but separate from related lobbying interests.
When Congress last revisited its rules on gifts, travel, post-Congressional employment and other ethics issues, they were amended to restrict the influence of lobbyists in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff, a lobbyist at Greenberg Traurig, had paid for lawmakers to go on expensive beach trips in Saipan and golf excursions to St. Andrews in Scotland in an attempt to curry Congressional favor for the American Indian tribes and corporations on his roster of high-profile clients.
The restrictions were supposed to end the type of trips lobbyists had been using to gain access on Capitol Hill. But over the objections of most of the government watchdog groups working with the lawmakers in the House and Senate, there were exceptions written into the rules that still allow outside interests to influence policy through travel.
In the House, lobbyists and organizations that employ them are banned from “planning, organizing, requesting or arranging most trips” unless the entity is a college or university. In the Senate, any 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit can sponsor travel, even though the groups are permitted to engage in limited lobbying.
Holman and his counterparts at similar organizations say the exceptions were not accidental. “I call it the AIPAC loophole,” Holman said.
AIPAC spent nearly $1 million lobbying the federal government the year the new rules were being written — some of it to shape those very rules to its liking.
“The reality was that most Members wanted to be able to do this type of travel and wanted to pay for it some other way than using public funds. In the end, what we were trying to do was pressure them to make the best deal that we could. It got rid of the most egregious problems, but the reality is we lost it. Members were just not willing to go there,” the Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee said.
As the number of privately financed trips has increased and the amount spent on such travel has skyrocketed — from $2.9 million in 2008 to nearly $6 million last year — a review of House and Senate disclosure forms reveals that more and more trips are financed by nonprofits with close ties to lobbying groups.
Sandwiched in between the Israel trips, for example, four lawmakers — and three of their wives — took a 10-day excursion to Botswana and South Africa to learn about conservation, sustainable agriculture and anti-poaching efforts. The $30,000-per-couple tab was footed by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation — a nonprofit group that began in 2004 as a partnership of Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund. Leaders from those groups, which collectively spent $2.6 million last year lobbying the federal government, now form an “advisory council” at the foundation. There’s also a “conservation council” with members from K Street corporate powerhouses such as Volkswagen, Walmart, Unilever, Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Institute. (The caucus itself is the second-largest in Congress, counting roughly a third of the House and a fourth of the Senate among its members.)
Sometimes the arrangement works in reverse, with a nonprofit spinning off an advocacy group.
Two years ago, alumni of the nonprofit and ideologically conservative Heritage Foundation think tank opened an affiliated but distinct lobbying shop and membership organization known as Heritage Action for America. If the foundation employed its own lobbyists, as it did in the past, it would not be able to send House Members on trips longer than a single day. But, under the rules, it was perfectly permissible for the Heritage Foundation to charter a bus in January and take 40 members of the House Republican Study Committee and some aides to the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia for a three-day retreat.
The foundation’s vice president of government studies, Michael Franc, described the getaway at the time as a “50,000-foot extended dissertation on our founding principles” and said it should be distinguished from a trip that pushed specific legislation. And it was he who did the paperwork required to get the trip blessed by the House Ethics Committee. (Franc was also a director at Heritage Action, though he’s not registered as a lobbyist.)
Tax records and other public documents show how money flows between the nonprofits and their affiliated advocacy groups. In AIEF’s case, for example, the $395,000 salary in 2009 for Executive Director Richard Fishman, who signs the permission forms filed with the Ethics Committee, came from AIPAC. About $13.5 million was transferred from AIEF to AIPAC in 2009 — the foundation’s single largest expenditure. More than a fifth of the lobbying group’s annual revenue came from the nonprofit that year.
ICCF’s revenue the same year was $1.15 million, which included $50,000 from the American Petroleum Institute. The foundation also received grants of $77,500 from the Nature Conservancy, $40,000 from Conservation International and $65,000 from the World Wildlife Fund between July 2008 and July 2009, according to tax filings.
The Honor System
In order to sponsor Congressional travel, at least in the House, sponsors must certify that “the trip will not be financed (in whole or in part) by a federally-registered lobbyist or a registered foreign agent” and that they have “not accepted from any other source funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip.”
An ICCF spokesman confirmed at the time of the four-Member Africa trip that none of its Advisory or Conservation Council members had earmarked money for the excursion; AIPAC does not comment on Congressional travel and declined to make an AIEF spokesman available, though the forms filed with the House Ethics Committee certify that no lobbyist was involved in planning or paying for the trip.
Sometimes, however, the honor system doesn’t work. Democratic Rep. Bill Owens of New York found out recently that a $22,000 trip to Taiwan he took with his wife at the invitation of the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan had in fact been arranged in part by lobbyists for the country’s government at Park Strategies — a firm founded by former Republican Sen. Al D’Amato of New York. Documents that Park Strategies filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act showed that D’Amato and others at Park Strategies, including the son of GOP Rep. Peter King of New York, helped arrange the trip.
After the news organization ProPublica wrote a series of stories on the trip, Owens announced he would reimburse the university. His aides have since received training to help them rebuff any questionable trip requests in the future.
Public Citizen has urged the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to look into whether Park Strategies violated House rules and refer its findings to the Ethics Committee. Though the committee could not discipline the firm, it could refer any evidence of wrongdoing to the Department of Justice, which has purview over such matters.
Holman said that until the ethics rules are further amended, the best way the committee could improve the travel approval process is to make it “very clear” that lobbying groups that sponsor trips in clear violation of the rules will be held accountable for their actions. Outside interests will continue to push the envelope on funding travel until Congress takes up the issue on a larger scale, he said.
“There is absolutely nothing that would prevent an actual lobbying firm from setting up a 501(c)(3) and paying for junkets through the 501(c)(3). I’m waiting for that to happen,” Holman said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.