House Ethics Panel to Investigate Caribbean Trips

Posted June 24, 2009 at 9:10pm

The House ethics committee voted Wednesday to investigate two privately sponsored trips to the Caribbean over concerns surrounding the events’ benefactors.Media reports in recent months raised questions regarding how the Carib News Foundation funds an annual trip to the Caribbean, as well as whether private companies sponsored the 2008 event in St. Maartens, Netherlands Antilles.“On June 24, 2009 the Committee adopted a resolution establishing an investigation subcommittee to investigate officially-connected travel in 2007 and 2008 that was sponsored, funded or organized by an organization known as Carib News or Carib News Foundation,— a statement issued by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct states.“The rules potentially implicated include the House gift rule (House Rule 25, clause 5) and other rules and laws, regulations, and other standards of conduct applicable to the conduct of Members, Delegates or Employees of the House in the performance of their duties or the discharged of their responsibilities,— the statement continued.Under House rules, Members and staff are prohibited from accepting gifts from lobbyists or foreign agents and face strict rules on receiving items from other sources.According to the statement, the decision to form an investigative subcommittee followed a preliminary inquiry conducted by Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.).Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) will serve as chairman of the subcommittee, and Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) will be the ranking member. Reps. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) will also serve on the panel.Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus who attended the November 2008 event said Wednesday that they had previously provided information on the trip to the Office of Congressional Ethics, which reviews potential rules violations and makes recommendations to the full ethics committee.Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the OCE contacted him regarding the trip.None of the lawmakers who attended the 2008 trip, including Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), said they had been contacted by the ethics panel by early Wednesday afternoon, although several lawmakers declined to comment.Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) rejected inquires through their respective offices. “We can’t say,— said Monique Clendinen Watson, Christensen’s chief of staff.Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) said he was unsure whether he had been contacted.Earlier this week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus had raised concerns over the OCE’s decision to review the New York Carib News Foundation-sponsored travel, as first reported by The Hill newspaper. According to a House travel records, CBC members dominate a list of those lawmakers invited to the 2007 and 2008 events.Although Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he did not attend a CBC meeting at which the investigation was discussed, he noted that lawmakers had questioned the decision to review travel that had received the ethics panel’s approval prior to the 2008 trip.“People have concerns,— Clyburn said. “All of this was vetted with the ethics committee before this trip was taken.—Under House rules, every Member or aide must obtain the ethics committee’s consent for privately sponsored travel, including a certification from the sponsor that the trip conforms to the chamber’s rules. Private entities that employ lobbyists may sponsor travel, although those trips are limited to no more than one day and one night.After each trip, Members and aides are also required to submit a form to the ethics committee certifying the travel, accommodations and activities matched those included in their pre-travel filing. It is unclear whether the ethics panel reviews those post-travel submissions.CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) declined to answer questions on the trip or the OCE or ethics panel investigations. “I’m not commenting. I’m not commenting,— Lee said.Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), however, acknowledged the CBC is interested in how the OCE functions, stating: “I think all of us are just curious about how it’s going to work.—The OCE is scheduled to meet with the CBC on Friday. The fledgling ethics office, which began reviewing alleged rules violations in January, regularly meets with Members, staff and non-Congressional organizations to discuss its rules and regulations.OCE Staff Director and Chief Council Leo Wise said Wednesday that he was unaware of any complaints regarding the office’s activities. The OCE does not discuss specific complaints or investigations. “We have not received any complaints from the CBC or any Members … nor have we received any complaints about the conduct of our staff,— Wise said. “Just the opposite. We’ve been complimented on how professional our investigators are in handling these matters.—