Sept. 30, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

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.

In mid-August, four Members of Congress took an ecotourism trip to South Africa and Botswana to learn about conservation, anti-poaching efforts and agriculture.

The 10-day excursion taken by Reps. John Carter (R-Texas), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) and Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) — all but Chandler brought their wives — ran about $30,000 per couple.

The whole trip — including game-reserve visits, biodiversity tours and expert briefings — 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.

Though Congress amended its ethics rules in 2007 to restrict private groups that retain registered lobbyists from arranging, organizing and financing most forms of Congressional travel, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations funded by lobbying groups and corporations with a political agenda can still sponsor Member travel — and even feature representatives from their lobbying benefactors as speakers and experts on the trips.

“There appear to be a number of
501(c)(3)s that are clearly so closely directed by lobbying entities that they are nothing but a wing of the lobbying group. The travel restrictions were clearly intended to prohibit lobbying entities from providing these kind of perks, so this is a very serious loophole when it comes to the travel restrictions,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen, who was not speaking specifically about the trip to Africa.

The ICCF began in 2004 as a partnership between the conservation groups Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund. Two years later, it was organized as a nonprofit charitable organization under the tax code in order to support a bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the International Conservation Caucus, which began in the House in 2003 as an effort to promote public-private partnerships that protect natural resources and promote international economic development.

The caucus grew to become the second-largest in Congress and now counts about a third of the House and a fourth of the Senate among its members.

The four founding organizations stayed on as the “Advisory Council” to the ICCF, which hosts Congressional briefings, an annual gala and a yearly oyster roast “prepared by legendary South Carolina game wardens” that was attended by more than 40 Members of Congress, according to the group’s website. Its “Conservation Council” includes corporate heavyweights such as Volkswagen, Walmart, Unilever, Exxon Mobil Corp. and the American Petroleum Institute.

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