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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.
“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.”