Travel Scandal Fallout Ensnares Both Parties

Posted May 4, 2005 at 6:52pm

As the scandal over Congressional travel continues to grow, at least 14 Members, as well as numerous Capitol Hill staffers, are now under scrutiny because of the sources of funding for domestic and overseas trips they took.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is by far the most high-profile lawmaker caught up in the scandal so far, but to this point, more Democrats than Republicans have found themselves the subject of news reports outlining potential violations of House ethics rules for taking trips funded by registered lobbyists or lobbying firms. The number is sure to rise as researchers for both parties, as well as reporters and political activists, continue to dig through tens of thousands of pages of travel documents on file with Congress.

The latest Democrats to join the list are Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). Lobbyist Jack Abramoff reportedly picked up the tab for a trip the two took to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in January 1997.

According to The Associated Press, Abramoff also billed his former employer, Preston Gates and Ellis, for a hotel bill totalling $2,208 for DeLay’s former chief of staff, Ed Buckham. Abramoff paid $52 for a travel upgrade for Tony Rudy, then a senior DeLay staffer, according to the AP.

Buckham and Rudy now run the Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying firm with numerous corporate clients. ASG has been involved in several high-profile incidents involving allegedly improperly funded Congressional travel, including trips to South Korea by DeLay and other lawmakers that were paid for by a registered foreign agent, which is prohibited by House ethics rules.

Both Clyburn and Thompson said they believed their 1997 trip, which cost slightly more than $10,000, had been paid for by a now-defunct nonprofit group called the National Security Caucus Foundation. The former head of that organization, Gregg Hilton, told the AP that he thought the CNMI’s government was covering the cost of the trips.

Hilton said Clyburn and Thompson were never told that the foundation was not the source of the funds for their trip. Under House ethics rules, registered lobbyists and lobbying firms are not allowed to pay for travel by Members or Congressional staffers, even if they are later reimbursed by a third party that can fund such trips, such as a state or local government or nonprofit group.

Questions about the National Security Caucus Foundation were first raised in early 1997 when a Tennessee newspaper reported that many of the political luminaries that Hilton claimed were associated with the organization, including several former U.S. presidents, denied having any ties to the group.

Democrats, for their part, were privately taken aback that two of their more prominent members — Clyburn is vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus and Thompson serves as ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee — had become embroiled in the political furor surrounding Abramoff.

Democratic sources said they expect Clyburn and Thompson to face an ethics inquiry given all attention surrounding DeLay and his overseas trips. Even if the two lawmakers were oblivious to any ethical violations, Democrats acknowledge they would be viewed as hypocrites if they attempt to shield them from investigation, sources said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that Democrats cannot be considered in the same category as Republicans when it comes to ethics problems. “It is not an issue of members of our Caucus having the same sort of a problem,” she said. “Make no mistake — there is a drastic difference between the timing of reporting things and ethical behavior.”

The House ethics committee, following months of bitter partisan battles, was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to organize.

The panel is required to approve its rules and staff for the year, and a full committee vote was expected on continuing an investigative subcommittee looking into allegations regarding Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) handling of an illegally recorded conversation in early 1997 between House GOP leaders. That recording has been the subject of a long legal battle between McDermott and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), and Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) filed an ethics complaint against McDermott late last year.

Ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and ranking member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) are still wrestling over the titles and authority within the committee given to several of their top staffers, according to GOP and Democratic sources.

The two lawmakers also appear ready to authorize informal inquiries into the allegations against DeLay and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) over their dealings with Abramoff as well as other lawmakers. Such inquiries do not require a vote by the ethics committee, but if Hastings and Mollohan agree a formal probe is needed in either case, a majority vote by the committee would be required.

Media reports have suggested that DeLay voted to support, or defeat, legislation of interest to several Abramoff clients following overseas trips funded by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Abramoff, a former member of the board for that organization, took part in the trips as well, and The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported that the lobbyist paid for expenses run up by DeLay, his wife and staffers who were part of the junkets.

While reiterating to reporters on Wednesday that he “did everything by the book” in reporting his past travel, DeLay acknowledged that the current rules are “confusing” and might need an overhaul. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) also said on Wednesday that travel rules might have to be reviewed by the ethics committee.

DeLay said the committee would be the best bipartisan forum for a possible revision of the travel rules, and he suggested that the panel should set up a better process that would allow Members to “go to ethics and submit a proposed trip for approval.”

“Then everybody knows what is proper and what is not proper,” DeLay said.

Pelosi, who has been slammed by Republicans for problems with her own travel disclosure reports, is backing a proposal introduced Wednesday by Reps. Rahm Emanual (D-Ill.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.).

That bill would, among other things, require organizations sponsoring Congressional trips to declare, prior to the trip, that it is not sponsored or financed by lobbyists or foreign agents and meets House ethics rules.

Ney, whose panel would have jurisdiction over the Meehan-Emanuel bill, said he would consider the proposal, although a Ney spokesman took a shot at Democrats for not consulting with Republicans before introducing it.

“Chairman Ney would absolutely take a very serious look at any legislation that would improve the current lobbying system and based on what he has heard initially, he does feel this issue warrants a serious review,” said Brian Walsh, Ney’s spokesman, in a statement. “He also believes, however, that any review should be done in a bipartisan manner. He questions why on the one hand House Democrats were adamant about pursuing a bipartisan review of issues related to the ethics committee, while today the Chairman of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] is introducing a related measure without any Republican consultation.”

Erin P. Billings and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.