Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Not Just DeLay

I have commented before on Tom DeLay's ethically questionable trip to the UK in 2000, paid for at least in part by uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Now we learn that DeLay wasn't the only member of Congress using what the Bull Moose terms "The Abramoff Express Card."

The Washington Post and New York Times each report that Abramoff also paid directly for a trip to the Northern Mariana islands taken by Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-SC, now vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee). Also on the trip and paid for by Abramoff were two senior DeLay staffers, Edwin Buckham and Tony Rudy (neither of whom still work for DeLay).

Kate Zernike and Philip Shenon report in the Times that Abramoff "submitted bills to his law firm for more than $350,000 in expenses for several trips to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in 1996 and 1997 on behalf of the congressmen" and DeLay's staffers. Abramoff was reimbursed by his firm for the charges. Abramoff had been hired by the government of the Northern Marianas to "lobby against proposed labor measures," says the Times.

"House travel rules bar lobbyists from paying for Congressional travel, even if the lobbyist is reimbursed by a group or government agency that is allowed to pay for travel," according to the Times report. The Post piece says "[a]ll three lawmakers have said in response to the disclosures that they had no way of knowing that Abramoff's credit card was being used to pay for the trips. They said they believed that the charges were being incurred by nonprofit groups, as House rules permit." Greg Hilton, former head of nonprofit group which 'invited' the lawmakers to the Northern Marianas, the National Security Caucus Foundation (no longer functional) told the Times that the group "did not pay and that he believed that the Marianas government was paying for the trips."

Payment for the trips by the Northern Marianas government would have been in compliance with ethics rules, but the records do not seem to indicate that this was the case. Even if the government reimbursed Abramoff, House ethics rules are quite clear on this point.

Rep. Clyburn said Tuesday that he believed the trip was paid for by the National Security Caucus Foundation, and that he "never heard of Abramoff, or whatever his name is, until all this stuff hit a few weeks ago." Showing a copy of the letter inviting him on the trip to the Northern Marianas, Clyburn said "The invitation was signed by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs. What was I supposed to believe?"

The RINO is glad to see that reports are now moving beyond just Tom DeLay, because clearly as questionable as his ethics have been, there is "more where that came from." Maybe now the House will be able to move forward in a bipartisan fashion and deal with these issues, rather than continue with "politics as usual." Our elected representatives and their staffs have a responsibility to make sure that their activities comply with the ethics rules of their chamber - and if they don't, they need to understand that they'll be called to account for it. As the Washington Post argued on Saturday in an editorial, it is time for the House to revise its travel rules, so that things like this stop happening.

[Update: The Hill's Josephine Hearn reports this morning on another apparent case of lobbyist-funded Congressional travel. Disclosure reports for Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), former Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-OK), and Reps. Howard Coble (R-NC), Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Clay Shaw (R-FL) indicate that DC lobbyists Kessler & Associates "footed the $25,000 bill" for the legislators' trip to an international trade seminar in Ireland in 2003. The newspaper says that aides to the representatives "confirmed that the lobbying firm had been listed as the sponsor and that they were in the process of checking into the matter."

The article also reports that Reps. Bill Thomas (R-CA), Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) and Norm Dicks (D-WA) admitted last week that they had traveled on lobbyist-sponsored trips in the past as well.

Hearn's article features a quote from Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, who said "It shows you how broken system is. If they are listing an impermissible source, it shows that as far as they’re concerned, a lobbyist was paying for [the trip]. It also shows that members are not paying much attention to the rules."

It's time that changed. -- 9:46 a.m.]


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