Cheney sidesteps travel disclosure rules

Unlike the rest of the White House, Cheney doesn't make his outside travel public

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Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff have been unilaterally exempting themselves from long-standing travel disclosure rules followed by the rest of the executive branch, including the Office of the President, the Center for Public Integrity has discovered.

Cheney's office also appears to have stuck taxpayers with untold millions in travel costs rather than accepting trip sponsors' funds that the rules would require to be disclosed.

It's not as if those in Cheney's office don't indulge in the type of junkets that are routinely funded by private sources. Instead of accepting reimbursement for such trips like other government travelers, it appears that his office labels them "official travel." As a result, however, the public is kept largely unaware of where he and his staff are traveling, with whom they are meeting with and how much it costs, even though tax dollars are covering the bill.

It's also not as if Cheney hasn't faced questions about secrecy and his travel in the past. In January 2003, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was reportedly Cheney's guest aboard Air Force Two on a flight south for a winter duck hunting trip at a property owned by an oil executive in southern Louisiana.

The trip took place shortly after the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Cheney's appeal of a lawsuit that sought to force him to disclose the details about the national energy policy task force he chaired behind closed doors in 2001. Cheney had refused to disclose the substance of the discussions or to list those who met with the task force; that list was believed to include major players in the energy industry.

Some would credit the vice president's office for not accepting outside cash to cover his travel costs. That may be true, but critics point out that the Office of the Vice President's lack of disclosure also creates an opaque situation, with little or no transparency or accountability and at a substantial cost to taxpayers.

According to the White House Web site, Cheney made 275 speeches and appearances between 2001 and June 1, 2005, including 23 speeches to think tanks and trade organizations and 16 at colleges and universities. Before his term in office, the cost associated with travel, lodging and food for the vice president and his staff to attend such events was routinely reimbursed by the sponsor and reported to the Office of Government Ethics, which collects and distributes travel disclosure reports for the executive branch per disclosure rules. During the Clinton administration, former Vice President Al Gore's office disclosed more than $180,000* in outside-funded travel from 1997 to 2000.

The rules in question cover the thousands of trips by government officials each year that are sponsored by outside groups such as trade associations, academic institutions and many other organizations. The private sector reimburses elected officials and bureaucrats for such trips, but laws require officials to disclose where they went, how much it cost and who paid for it.

The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 requires every executive "agency" to file a semiannual report of payments accepted from non-federal sources. Regulations implementing this provision state that the term "includes an independent agency as well as an agency within the Executive Office of the President."

President George W. Bush's office accepts reimbursement for travel and has reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel funded by private sources in fiscal years 2003 and 2004, including trips taken by high-profile staffers such as Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales. Public records show that all but one of the other offices within the Executive Office of the President also have filed travel disclosure reports showing privately funded trips. The lone exception, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, appears to have filed no financial disclosure forms at all.

"Official travel"

More than a dozen organizations and colleges have confirmed that Cheney's office was not compensated for travel to their events — and in some cases even refused offers of reimbursement.

One such trip was for a commencement speech given by Cheney at the University of Missouri School of Agriculture in May 2003.

The school offered reimbursement for the trip, but Cheney's office refused, said James Hundle, Assistant to the Dean of the University of Missouri School of Agriculture. The vice president accepted only a University of Missouri sweatshirt, he said. Cheney also spoke at the annual conference of the National Association of Homebuilders in Atlanta in June 2002. The association usually pays for the travel and lodging of its keynote speakers, but Cheney's office did not report a non-federal sponsor of that trip.

The association did, however, pick up the $1,009 tab for Rep. Anne Northup, R-Ky., to travel to Atlanta for the group's 2001 convention, and footed the $2,683 bill for Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, and his wife to travel to a speaking engagement in Boston in 2003, according to their disclosure filings.

Instead of making disclosures like most of the White House, Cheney's office since March 2002 has periodically responded to OGE inquiries by stating that it is not obligated to file such disclosure forms for travel funded by non-federal sources.

The letters were signed by then-Counsel to the Vice President David Addington, who two weeks ago was named Cheney's chief of staff, replacing indicted aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Addington also reportedly helped write a memo validating the use of torture or similar techniques on terrorism suspects abroad that came to light during the attorney general confirmation process of Gonzales, Bush's former counsel.

In the letters to the Office of Government Ethics, Addington writes that the Office of the Vice President is not classified as an agency of the executive branch and is therefore not required to issue reports on travel, lodging and related expenses funded by non-federal sources. The letters go on to say that neither the vice president nor his staff had accepted any non-federal payments for travel during the period, and that the office is making that limited disclosure as "a matter of comity."

The Office of the Vice President did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on its travel disclosure policies for this report.

One former director of the Office of Government Ethics says that he finds the Office of the Vice President's exemption argument surprising.

"That is unusual that the [Office of the Vice President] alone would claim such an exemption," says Stephen D. Potts, who served as OGE director under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Potts theorizes that a case could be made to exempt Cheney's office from travel disclosure rules, but that such a rationale would include the Office of the President, not exclude it.

"It would be a much stronger argument if it were broader than just the one office and was based on national security," says Potts. "The argument that they are not an agency of the executive branch seems a bit of a reach."

Meanwhile, an official from one government watchdog group says that the Office of the Vice President's interpretation of the law is, at best, up for debate.

"The issue of whether that office is covered by the [travel disclosure and Freedom of Information] laws hasn't been resolved in court — and I think the vice president's office would even admit that," says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which sued unsuccessfully to force disclosure of documents and minutes from closed door meetings of Cheney's energy policy task force.

"It's not surprising [the Office of the Vice President] would take that stand," Fitton says. "Their view is that the vice president is a constitutional office that is not subject to the laws that others in the executive branch are. They have been consistent in that."

Zero enforcement

But the question of legality is largely moot. Bureaucrats and elected officials are largely on the honor system when it comes to obeying travel disclosure law. According to one longtime OGE official, his agency is merely a repository for the required travel disclosure reports and lacks any authority to force government offices to actually comply with the law.

"We really don't do anything except collect the forms and make them available to the public," says Tom Zorn, OGE deputy associate director for program services.

Zorn says that years ago the office did try to review the filings and make sure everyone covered by the law was following it, but that those efforts quickly proved unworkable and were abandoned in the 1980s.

The lack of OGE enforcement shouldn’t matter, though, contends Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C. She says that Cheney’s office should offer disclosure about travel, even if it is not technically required to make such information available to the public.

“The vice president’s refusal to provide this information, particularly when every other office in the White House voluntarily discloses its travel, suggests that he may be hiding something,” she says.

 


*This number has been changed from its original publication.