The Ethics Committee has closed its investigation into Reps. Bill Owens and Peter Roskam for their allegedly improper trips to Taiwan — but not because either lawmaker was necessarily blameless.
The Ethics Committee said the review of both cases was "incomplete" because the information necessary to conduct the review was unobtainable due to uncooperative foreign officials. But, because Owens had "voluntarily remedied the impermissible gift" of a trip to Taiwan and because there was "insufficient evidence to show that Rep. Roskam's travel was improper," the panel unanimously voted to close the investigation.
The investigation stemmed from individual trips provided to Owens, Roskam and both of their wives to Taiwan, and at issue was who was bankrolling and planning the trips.
Foreign governments can only organize and pay for trips for U.S. lawmakers in certain special cases — cases that would exclude the travel of their wives. To accommodate their wives, the lawmakers would need their trips privately sponsored, and according to the ethics report, both Owens, D-N.Y., and Roskam, R-Ill., had been in contact with the Taiwanese government about the trip before finding a private sponsor.
Both lawmakers sought the approval of the Ethics Committee before their travel, and the panel authorized both trips under the assumption that they were funded by the Chinese Culture University. It was only after the lawmakers returned from Taiwan that the Ethics Committee learned the trip was initially planned by an office of the Taiwanese government — the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office — as part of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. Before the trip ever happened, "it was decided," the Ethics report said, "that the trips should be conducted under the House's privately-sponsored travel rules and not MECEA."
The Chinese Culture University, a private university, agreed to sponsor separate trips for both members and their wives. The Ethics Committee, however, was unaware that there was a previous invitation and previous itinerary from the Taiwanese government.
"It was only after the conclusion of the trip that the Committee became aware of this fact," the Ethics report published Friday said.
"The late change in the nature of the trips, without a significant change in the itinerary or involvement of the original sponsor, suggested that CCU may not have been a proper sponsor as defined under the privately-sponsored travel rules," the Ethics panel wrote, calling the change from a MECEA trip to a privately sponsored trip "potentially problematic."
Both Owens and Roskam characterized their travel as privately sponsored. But before the CCU was ever involved as the sponsor, it appears neither disclosed to the Ethics Committee that they had previously been planning to go through agencies associated with the Taiwanese government.
The House Ethics Manual notes that "expenses may only be accepted from an entity or entities that have a significant role in organizing and conducting a trip."
It's unclear how significant a role the CCU played in planning the trip.
The Ethics panel also noted in its report that "so called 'money-only' sponsors are not permitted" for travel.
Additionally, the Ethics report said, a registered foreign lobbying group, Park Strategies, was involved in the planning of Owens' trip.
"Lobbyists and foreign agents may only have de minimis involvement in the planning, organization, request, or arrangement of a one-day privately-sponsored travel and may have no involvement in multi-day trips. After the trip was changed to privately-sponsored travel, Park Strategies reduced its involvement in the trip, but not sufficiently to comply with the privately-sponsored travel rules," according to the Ethics report.
Owens, a New York Democrat, reimbursed the Chinese Culture University for the trip when the ethics charges became an issue.
Both the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office and the CCU refused to cooperate with the ethics investigation, and absent material from those offices, the panel felt it could not make a determination on the sponsor legitimacy.
Therefore, according to the report, the Ethics panel decided that the "presently-available" evidence against Roskam, an Illinois Republican, and Owens was "inconclusive."