Black Caucus’ Institute Acts to Steer Clear of Ethics Snags

Posted August 17, 2010 at 1:29pm

The Congressional Black Caucus Political Education & Leadership Institute took extra steps to ensure its annual policy conference in Mississippi last week complied with House ethics rules, according to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and an institute board member.

The effort comes a year after the nonprofit ran into criticism over corporate sponsorships listed on its itinerary and for giving free space to the American Gaming Association to host an industry forum. A number of CBC members have also grappled with ethics inquiries over the past year.

“We comply very, very strictly with the House rules that relate to gifts and travel,” said Bill Kirk, a CBC Institute board member and organizer of the annual conference in Tunica, Miss.

Members of Congress are not allowed to accept travel from private entities but are allowed to take trips sponsored by nonprofit groups. Lawmakers must submit forms in advance of trips to the ethics panel to get approval. More than 800 people attended the three-day conference to discuss everything from health care and minority contracting to homeland security.

“Whatever the requirements are we will meet them and given the level of scrutiny and questions received, we continue to comply,” Thompson said. “Over the last 11 years the method of getting approval has changed, so we continue to work with it.”

Thompson, chairman of the CBC Institute board, received approval from the ethics committee for the event Aug. 9, two days before the conference started and nearly a month after he submitted forms seeking approval.

Thompson said the ethics approval process has become so arduous it requires Members to seek legal counsel to ensure compliance. And more lawmakers are picking up the tab for their own travel rather than having to interact with the ethics committee. Thompson estimated that about half of the Members who attended the policy conference opted to pay for their own travel.

“More and more Members will say, ‘I’m coming, but I’ll pick up my own expenses. I won’t go through this constant badgering by ethics,'” Thompson said.

Members are also less likely to go through the ethics process because getting the OK by the ethics committee doesn’t necessarily mean the trip will actually be approved, according to Thompson.

Thompson was one of six CBC members who had to reimburse the government for the costs of two trips to the Caribbean. The trips had originally been approved by the ethics committee. After an investigation, the committee found that the trips were largely paid for by for-profit corporations.

While Thompson sought ethics approval for the Tunica trip, he said that the system is broken.

“There’s a reluctance to rely on ethics for advice anymore, and when Members of Congress have reluctance to rely on Congress for advice, that undermines the whole process,” Thompson said.

In order to get the ethics committee’s approval this year, the institute made sure to demonstrate that corporations and trade associations that contributed to the group did not control the agenda of the three-day event.

Roll Call reported in October 2009 on the forms a dozen CBC members filed with the House ethics committee in 2008 and 2009 seeking approval of their travel to the annual conference. The copy of the 2008 itinerary listed corporate sponsors for every aspect of the conference.

“We have corporations who have made unrestricted donations to us, but they are not involved in the planning at the conference, they don’t have a seat at the table,” Kirk said.

Edison Electric Institute, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are just a few of the corporate entities that contributed to the institute.

Kirk said contributions gave donors the right to attend the event and participate in activities scheduled around the conference but offered no control over the event.

There was at least one instance where an individual who worked for a company that contributed to the event was asked to be a panelist during the conference.

David Owens, executive vice president at Edison Electric, spoke on an energy panel. Owens is also a board member of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

“There is no quid pro quo,” Kirk said. “You don’t give us dollars so you get to be on a panel. … They were selected because of subject matter expertise.”

The institute also charged the American Gaming Association for space it uses for its annual industry forum that coincides with the policy conference.

Kirk said allowing the gaming association to hold its event in previous years without paying a rental fee was an “oversight.”

“This year they have rented out space within the convention center,” Kirk said. “It’s separate and apart [from the conference].”

AGA spokeswoman Holly Thomsen declined to comment.