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Africa Trip Blurs Lines on Travel Propriety

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
In August, Rep. John Carter took a 10-day trip to Africa that was paid for by a nonprofit group called the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, which is closely linked to four lobbying organizations and a roster of corporate interests.

“Our partners play an essential role in supporting true American values in conservation by providing technical expertise, policy innovations, financial resources, information technology and general leadership and encouragement to conservation programs in other countries,” according to the foundation’s website.

ICCF President John Gantt Jr. declined to discuss the foundation’s financing or its ties to lobbying organizations. The foundation’s revenue for the 2009 calendar year was about $1.15 million, according to tax records. Included in that figure is $50,000 from the American Petroleum Institute. Sometime from July 2008 to June 2009, the foundation received grants of $77,500 from the Nature Conservancy, $40,000 from Conservation International and $65,000 from the World Wildlife Fund. Corporate donations are not disclosed in the same way as gifts from nonprofits and are more difficult to track.

The foundation’s financial supporters also write large checks to lobbyists. Last year, the Nature Conservancy spent $2.18 million lobbying the federal government on agriculture, taxes and appropriations, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The World Wildlife Fund spent $810,000, and the Wildlife Conservation Society spent $299,100. Conservation International’s foundation has spent $210,000 on lobbyists so far this year. Corporate council member Volkswagen spent $1 million on lobbyists in 2010; Unilever spent $750,000.

Though Gantt said none of the advisory or conservation council members — or the family foundation that gave the conservation group money for the trip — had a role in planning or organizing the trip to South Africa and Botswana, the group’s outside sponsors at times had the opportunity to interact with participating Members.

A tourism adviser to the World Wildlife Fund briefed Members about the group’s activities in South Africa during dinner. The chairman of Conservation International conducted multiple briefings on topics such as the link between international conservation and national security. The group toured a Volkswagen South Africa manufacturing plant and discussed public-private partnerships.

A representative from Crenshaw’s office said the trip was a valuable opportunity for the Appropriations Committee member to learn about how foreign assistance is being used overseas.

“This House-Ethics-Committee-approved trip, taken at no expense to the taxpayer, provided that opportunity for programs in the regions of Botswana and South Africa. Participants gained knowledge of economic and political conditions, the education and health situation, natural resource management plans and conservation solutions that can be utilized in future decision making on Capitol Hill,” said Crenshaw’s communications director, Barbara Riley, in an email.

The offices of Carter, Chandler and Gingrey did not respond to requests for comment.

Ethics experts involved in the 2007 reform effort say trips paid for by nonprofits that maintain close links to lobbying entities were not what they had in mind when the revised rules were drafted. The proliferation of such trips has contributed to a rise in the amount spent on privately financed Congressional travel. As Roll Call has previously reported, the $1.5 million spent sending lawmakers and their family members abroad in August shattered previous monthly records, in large part due to trips paid for by the ICCF and a charitable arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee known as the American Israel Education Foundation.

“This is something that is very troubling when it comes to our travel restrictions,” Holman said. “Once you start carving out any exceptions [for nonprofits], these lobbying entities will push the envelope as hard as they can.”

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