Lobbyists tag along on civil rights tour

Alabama pilgrimage also provides chance to mingle with lawmakers

By

 Updated:

Seven times in the last nine years, the Faith and Politics Institute has taken a congressional contingent on what it calls a "civil rights pilgrimage" to Alabama.

The institute, a nonprofit organization with its headquarters on Capitol Hill, takes participants to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. Guided by Lewis, a central figure in the 1960s civil rights movement, members of Congress and their aides gain perspective by visiting museums and memorials, taking part in silent processions and attending interfaith services. Congressional travelers are required to pay part of their expenses."It's a place to learn, to study and to be inspired," said the leader of the event, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

An examination of records by the Center for Public Integrity, however, has found that a significant number of lobbyists also have taken the tour — gaining access to lawmakers in the process.

A review of attendance records of the last Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, held in March 2005, showed that about a dozen lobbyists representing tobacco, telecommunications, automobile, home mortgage and other companies went along — about one registered lobbyist for every three members of Congress signed up for the trip.

Representatives of the institute's major corporate donors are invited along on the tours. Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Altria and Freddie Mac are among those that have helped finance the trips.

"If you give $25,000, you get a seat on the bus," said Sara Fritz, executive director of the Faith and Politics Institute.

However, lobbyists don't know in advance which members of Congress will be present on the trips, according to Fritz.

"If this is the way they are seeking access," she said, "they are wasting their money."

Still, there are skeptics.

"Lobbyists have an unbelievable degree of access in Washington, and the practice of lobbyists traveling with members of Congress on trips, regardless of the purpose, raises troubling questions," Texas gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, a Democratic former House member, said in a statement to the Center for this report.

Bell filed an official ethics complaint against then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2004, accusing the Texas Republican of accepting political contributions in return for legislative action and laundering illegal campaign contributions, among other charges.

Lobbyists on board

Some say the trips could pay dividends for lobbyists by giving them time with lawmakers outside of Washington.

"What's very possible is that the sponsoring companies are using their funding to obtain lobbying opportunities that ordinarily they would not get," said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor who spent 11 years as the House's deputy general counsel. "They are obtaining an advantage."

Tiefer said he does not object to congressional travel for educational purposes, but is opposed to allowing lobbyists on trips unrelated to their clients' activities.

Companies, he said, might buy into the trip "so they can talk in an environment in which they will not be seen automatically as enemies."

Fritz, however, said she believes that the trips sensitize lobbyists to issues of race and social justice.

"Lobbyists influence how Washington works," said Fritz, who was a political and investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times before joining the institute. "To ignore them would be ridiculous."

"The pilgrimage is not a place to lobby," he said.Lewis said he didn't have "any reservations or hesitations" about lobbyists going on the Alabama tour because the Faith and Politics Institute has no interests before Congress.

The Faith and Politics Institute itself might not have business before Congress, but the corporations that help finance it and the lobbyists who sit on its board of directors do.

The board's most recent addition is Kenneth Bowler, who until March 2005 was vice president for federal government relations at Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical company.

Bowler twice went on the Alabama pilgrimage. He is now international and government relations director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Washington.

Also on the institute's board is Patrick Griffin, who was President Bill Clinton's chief lobbyist and today lobbies Congress for AARP, a copper corporation in South Korea and the global consulting firm Accenture.

The board also includes: Dalton Yancey, a lobbyist for the sugar industry; Ken Eudy, who heads his own public relations and lobbying firm in North Carolina; and Vic Fazio, a former Democratic congressman from California who now is a senior adviser and lobbyist at Akin Gump.

The institute is funded by corporations, unions and individuals. The Rev. Doug Tanner, who helped found the group, said that corporations are generally the most generous donors, usually giving up to $25,000 a year.

Freddie Mac and DaimlerChrysler were described on the 2005 donor list as "visionaries" — contributors of $50,000 or more. The institute received at least a combined $400,000 from 14 major corporations that year, records show. Only two foundations are on the list of top donors.

Purpose-driven pilgrimage

According to its Web site, the Faith and Politics Institute was founded in 1991 by a small group that included Tanner, a United Methodist minister and former Democratic congressional aide; and Rockefeller family member Anne Bartley. Its mission was to foster spiritual life and dialogue among members of Congress and their staffs. Lewis was recruited in 1997 with then-Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., to serve as co-chairmen of the board of directors (each is now listed as "chairman emeritus").

The institute's activities include sponsoring a lecture series and hosting weekly reflection groups. In addition to pilgrimages, it also organizes spiritual retreats for members of Congress and their spouses that have been held in such places as Charleston, S.C., and Santa Barbara, Calif.The institute's Web site says that its goal is "to assist men and women in public life to seek God's guidance and recognize the ways in which their faith calls them to work for the common good." Legislators spanning the political spectrum, including Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., sit on its congressional advisory council.

The Center for Public Integrity found more than 100 travel disclosure forms filed by lawmakers and congressional aides for trips sponsored by the institute from January 2000 through June 2005. The total spent was more than $110,000.

The Center also found that more than half of the Alabama pilgrimage trips sponsored by the institute in the past five years were not disclosed by congressional members.

The group hosted its first congressional pilgrimage to Alabama in 1998, and six more followed — always under Lewis' guidance.

Lewis brings personal insight from the civil rights movement to the tours. As a member and later chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was arrested and beaten many times during protests. Notably, he led about 600 peaceful protesters attacked by state troopers on March 7, 1965, as they tried to cross from Selma to Montgomery over the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a voting rights demonstration. Lewis was severely wounded during the march, which came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."

According to the institute's Web site, the pilgrimage often includes visits to museums such as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Rosa Parks Library and Museum and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, as well as churches that played important roles in the movement. The group also celebrates the anniversary of the march across the bridge.

Poor compliance with disclosure rules makes it difficult to determine from filings alone all of the congressional travelers who went on the Alabama tours. According to Faith and Politics Institute attendance lists, the group sponsored more than 100 pilgrimage trips for lawmakers between 2000 and 2005. But the Center for Public Integrity found only 53 disclosure records for members of Congress covering that period.

The Center's analysis found some — such as Lewis, who has attended the five pilgrimages held since 2000 — did not file disclosure forms for the trips. The study found that Sen. George Allen, R-Va., didn't disclose his participation in the 2004 pilgrimage; his aides said that he did file forms for the 2005 tour, although nine months after the trip took place.

Lewis' office did not respond to questions about the disclosure filings.

Faith and Politics Institute officials said that members might be confused about disclosure requirements because they pay for part of the pilgrimage. Lawmakers are required to disclose privately funded trips within 30 days of the travel. After the trips, the institute sends each member a breakdown of the expenses to facilitate disclosure, its officials said.

Wal-Mart, Altria hit the road

The pilgrimage has become popular, Tanner said, and members of Congress often take along children and constituents. They use their own money or their political campaign or foundation funds to pay for their guests.

Corporate sponsors also are invited to bring guests.

Last year, Wal-Mart sent its newly hired Washington lobbyist, Kimberly Woodard, an experienced advocate for the food industry before Congress. According to lobbying records, Woodard was lobbying the House and the Senate on "employee-employer related legislation" in the first half of 2005, as well as on methamphetamine legislation provisions pertaining to the sale of cold medicine.Of those listed as attendees of the March 2005 pilgrimage, 13 of the 16 corporate representatives were registered lobbyists. On previous trips, Tanner said, at least half of those who attended on behalf of corporations were lobbyists.

As the world's largest retailer sought to deflect criticism for paying low wages and failing to provide health insurance for all of its employees, Wal-Mart focused on solidifying its Washington ties. Its political action committee contributions to both major parties totaled $2.7 million in 2003-2004, according to the Federal Election Commission. And the corporation's Senate Office of Public Records filings show that it spent $1.6 million on federal lobbying in 2005.

In recent years, Wal-Mart has reached out to members of the Congressional Black Caucus — to which Lewis belongs — and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Chief Executive Officer H. Scott Lee has met with each group, and the company has made significant annual contributions to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation — at least $100,000 in 2005, according to the foundation's Web site.

Woodard refused to comment on the pilgrimage or Wal-Mart's sponsorship of it.

Jim Hirni, a Republican lobbyist at Cassidy & Associates who also represents Wal-Mart, attended the 2005 trip as well on behalf of UST Inc., holding company for U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company and International Wine & Spirits Ltd. Hirni worked with Jack Abramoff at the Greenberg Traurig law firm; both moved on to Cassidy & Associates in early 2004, Hirni as an employee, Abramoff as a contractor.

Altria, parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris, sent John Hoel, its vice president of government affairs (tobacco), on the pilgrimage. In the first half of 2005, lobbying records show that Hoel was working on major legislative matters in the House and the Senate, tax relief, defense appropriations and the Patriot Act among them.

Dawn Schneider, a spokeswoman for Altria, said that Hoel was not available for an interview for this report. In a written statement, Schneider said the company "supports the Faith and Politics Institute, a non-partisan, interfaith organization, because it importantly provides political leaders a unique opportunity for interaction and discussion."

Brian Folkerts, Altria's vice president of government affairs (food), also made the 2005 Alabama trip, records show.

A question of propriety

Faith and Politics Institute executives maintain that no lobbying occurs during the pilgrimage.

"I think most of them [lobbyists] — I can't say all — recognize that the atmosphere they are in is different," said Wardell Townsend, the institute board chairman, who also was a former Democratic congressional aide and an official with the Agriculture Department during the Clinton administration.

"Most of the time, they [the lobbyists] are either talking or singing about social injustices and civil rights. That takes up a lot of energy," Townsend said.

"At a minimum, they want good will for them and for their clients," said Waxman, who participated in the March 2005 pilgrimage, disclosure filings show.Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who is on the institute's congressional advisory council, said lobbyists have "several motives" for going on the trip. They want to support the organization, learn more about civil rights and spend time with members of Congress, he said.

Waxman said he doesn't think that lobbyists should be banned from congressional trips, a position that appears to conflict with a provision of a bill to amend House rules that he co-sponsored with Lewis and 130 others.

The legislation (H.Res.659) introduced in Jan. 31 by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., would tighten rules on fronts such as cutting the time allowed for record votes, limiting lobbyists' influence and ending two-day work weeks, in an effort to "protect the integrity of the institution." Among its provisions is one requiring members of Congress to get written certification from sponsors that "no registered lobbyist has been invited to participate in the transportation, lodging or any associated meetings" before accepting privately sponsored travel.

"The bill goes too far [in banning lobbyists from trips]," Waxman said. "But the rest of it is pretty good."

But Obey, who also has introduced legislation that calls for public financing of political campaigns, sees no room for compromise.

"Lawmakers should not go on trips that are attended by lobbyists who are trying to influence Congress," said his spokeswoman, Ellis Brachman.

Not 'business as usual'

In recent years, after criticism from watchdog organizations and the media, other nonprofit groups that sponsor congressional travel have found ways to restrict lobbying opportunities on trips.

The Congressional Institute and its sister organization, the Public Governance Institute, have set lobbying boundaries at the congressional retreats that the groups host at venues such as the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

"Lobbyists can attend the opening reception, but after that, they can't be on the property," said Jerry Climer, president of both groups.

Tanner and Lewis said there is a key distinction between the Alabama pilgrimage and other privately funded trips.

Lewis said, however, that he would feel "much better" if the institute's funding came from churches and foundations instead of corporations. "More and more we should be independent," he said."They [the lobbyists] have a sincere interest in the civil rights movement, and this trip takes them away from business as usual," said Lewis. "It's not going to change our opinions because we walk across the bridge together or we eat a meal together."

"In a perfect world, we would want money from perfect corporations," said Townsend, the board chairman. "But we would have very little work to do in a perfect world."

As he plans the next congressional pilgrimage to be held in March 2007, Tanner is following a new round of discussions about lobbying reform and ethics in Congress.

To avoid potential problems, the institute decided to use foundation money to organize this year's April 28-30 trip to Farmville, Va., where members of Congress learned about racial reconciliation. Corporate lobbyists did not participate, with the exception of board member Yancey. Lawmakers were asked to pay their own way.

Unless ethics rules change to ban lobbyists from participating in congressional travel, Tanner plans to keep the Alabama trip open to them. He said he doesn't think it will hurt the institute's reputation.

"It's a very minimal risk, and one worth running," he said.

 

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now