Skip to comments.Report: Trips buy 'access that you and I can't get'
Posted on 06/06/2006 10:10:01 AM PDT by NormsRevenge
Congressional travelers took all-expenses-paid trips worth almost $50 million over a 5½-year period, with corporations and other private sponsors picking up the tab, according to a report released yesterday.
The report raises fresh questions about influence-peddling that began last year when lobbying and corruption scandals erupted on Capitol Hill.
This is really a form of unregulated lobbying that is done completely out of public view, said Jim Morris of The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group in Washington D.C.
Morris led the center's nine-month study of congressional travel disclosure forms, which was joined by Northwestern University's Medill News Service and American Public Media.
In reviewing more than 26,000 travel disclosure documents, the group found that both Republicans and Democrats were traveling increasingly on the tab of corporations, trade associations and politically-oriented nonprofit groups.
At a minimum, it's a fairness issue, Morris added. These sponsors are buying access that you and I can't get, that we can't afford to pay for.
San Diego's General Atomics, a government contractor, was the biggest corporate underwriter, according to the report. Privately held General Atomics spent more than $660,000 on 86 trips taken by members of Congress, their aides and families between January 2000 and June 2005. Most of that was spent on overseas travel related to the unmanned Predator spy plane made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, an affiliated company.
In a statement yesterday, the company said it had sponsored travel for members of Congress and their staffs to promote enhanced understanding of General Atomics' technology research and product development.
The company also noted that excursions were reviewed by the appropriate Congressional ethics committees prior to travel.
Yet journalists and researchers from the Center for Public Integrity found widespread disregard of ethics rules for accepting travel.
At least 90 trips, valued at about $145,000, were sponsored or co-sponsored by lobbyists, even though lobbyist-paid travel is forbidden.
The propriety of other trips was less clear.
In 2002, for example, General Atomics paid for Letitia White who was then a top aide to Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands and her husband to travel to Italy, according to a financial disclosure documents reviewed by the Copley News Service. The purpose and cost of the trip were not listed.
White left Lewis' office nine months later, on Jan. 8, 2003, to become a lobbyist in the firm now known as Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton & White.
The next day, she began representing General Atomics, according to other records in which she reported that she would represent the San Diego company in matters regarding defense appropriations. Lewis, her former boss, was at the time chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee.
General Atomics paid the Copeland, Lowery firm about $270,000 from 2003 through 2005, according to the disclosure documents.
When asked about the General Atomics trip to Italy that White took in 2002, Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for Copeland, said: This kind of trip is frequent on Capitol Hill. Many, many staffers go on trips like this one every year.
Gary Hopper, a General Atomics lobbyist in Washington D.C., also said the 2002 trip was vetted by the House Ethics Committee.
General Atomics spent $67,744 on seven trips for members of the San Diego congressional delegation and their staffs.
The study found the office of Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was the biggest recipient of private travel dollars, with DeLay and his staffers accepting about $500,000 on more than 200 trips over 5½ years.
Among them is a now-infamous golf trip to Scotland that DeLay and his wife took in the spring of 2000. The trip, which cost more than $28,000, was sponsored by Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty in January to federal charges of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion.
Ethics rules also require sponsored trips taken by members to be connected to their official duties.
Although some trips appeared legitimate, Morris said others appeared to be little more than pricey vacations wrapped around speeches or seminars.
Top congressional destinations for the frequent flyer freebies was Paris (at least 200 trips), Hawaii (150) and Italy (140).
I think most people can distinguish between a fact-finding trip to Iraq and a four-day trip to Las Vegas to deliver a one-hour speech, Morris said.
In a separate review of travel data, The San Diego Union-Tribune found California members of Congress logged 2,372 privately funded trips from 2000 to mid 2005, at a total cost of $5.3 million.
The travel data, which was provided by the Center for Public Integrity, shows the office of Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, topping the list with 246 trips costing $387,763.
The least-traveled California lawmaker was Rep. Steven Kuykendall, R-Los Angeles, who took just one privately sponsored trip that cost $221 during his single term that ended in 2001.
The San Diego congressional delegation took 135 trips paid for by private sponsors during the five-plus years at a total cost of $361,577. The office of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, traveled the most, with 66 trips at a total price tag of $180,517. In a telephone interview yesterday, Issa defended his trips as both legal and ethical.
I travel in order to fulfill my obligations on my own time to have knowledge of committee activities and activities in congress, Issa said.
Rep. Randy Duke Cunningham and his staff took 29 trips valued at $111,350. The former Rancho Santa Fe Republican admitted last year to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.
Among the costliest trips was an $18,000 that Issa and his wife, Katharine, took to Doha, Qatar. The excursion was paid for by the American Task Force for Lebanon, Islamic Free Market Institute and the Qatar Chamber of Commerce.
Other trips taken by the San Diego delegation included:
In 2004, Cunningham staffer David J. Heil, and his wife, Monica, took a $16,800 trip across Italy paid for by General Atomics. The trip included stops in Bologna, Milan, Rome and Venice. The purpose of the trip, among other things, was to visit Italian companies doing defense work and tour air bases.
In 2003, Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, and her husband, Steve, took an $11,452 trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel. The trip, called an education mission by Davis, was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation.
In 2001, Philippines United Against Crime/Kuwait FOTN paid $13,742 to send Issa and wife, Katharine, to the Philippines and Kuwait for research.
In 2000, General Atomics paid $7,198 to send David J. Schroeder, a former staffer for Imperial Beach Republican Brian Bilbray, on a nine-day trip to the Russian cities of Moscow, Sarov and St. Petersburg. The trip's purpose was for Schroeder to examine nuclear nonproliferation programs.
They should legalize it and require Congressmen to tattoo the sponsor and value on their forehead in ink that will fade after a few years.
I strongly disagree.
Laws regarding influence peddling should be rigorously enforced, and everyone involved should be subject to extremely close scrutiny.
The US government claims to be "of, by, and for the people". Lobbying (influence peddling by another name) should ONLY be allowed by INDIVIDUALS and CITIZENS, not corporate interests, as was originally intended!
There won't be enough room on their foreheads. How about they have to wear a slave bracelet for each trip taken? When they run out of room on their arms, put them on their legs.
You must've missed the part where I required the congressmen to tattoo their corporate sponsors on their forehead with ink that takes a few years to fade away.
Which means you must've missed the fact that it was an obvious joke, with the implication that the congressmen would all look like those classifieds flyers.
And really, isn't the whole problem that they manage to hide their acceptance of bribes, gifts, and venereal diseases? While they are required to report their participation in these sponsored trips, they aren't required to do so in a place that is easily indexed, searched, and displayed prominently. Aside from the illegal bribes, most of what goes on in D.C. is legal but obscure.
I am against all of it....