It's a cardinal rule in Congress: Lawmakers and their staffers may not take travel paid by registered lobbyists or lobbying firms. The intention is to keep professional influence-peddlers from gaining special access to lawmakers.
Filings for travel from January 2000 through June 2005 show that lawmakers and aides accepted at least 90 trips for which the original reported sponsors or co-sponsors match the names of firms registered with the Senate Office of Public Records to lobby the federal government. The total cost of the travel listed on the original forms was roughly $145,000.However, a review of travel disclosure forms by the Center for Public Integrity found that dozens of congressional travelers appear to have violated this ethics rule in recent years.
As of April 21, the Center found that about 20 percent of those forms had been amended to indicate that a different set of sponsors paid for the trips.
"After the Abramoff scandal, you would think that every member of Congress or staff who took a trip would go back and look at their forms to see if they also took a trip from a lobbyist," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "[Not doing so] shows a real insensitivity to the implications of the rules and laws."
Ornstein was referring to trips lobbyist Jack Abramoff reportedly financed for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. DeLay, who traveled with Abramoff to Scotland in 2000, resigned from Congress on June 9. Ney, who traveled to Scotland with Abramoff in 2002, is under investigation by federal authorities for alleged favors he performed for Abramoff and his colleagues.
While members or staffers can get waivers to take lobbyist-paid trips from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics or the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, those forms are not publicly available, and officials with both committees either failed to return calls or refused to comment on individual trips.
Although most of the trips identified by the Center's review hardly resemble the lavish excursions associated with Abramoff and DeLay, they suggest a disregard for the ethics standard by the travelers and weak oversight and enforcement by the ethics committees.
A break from the rules
In early January 2000, Angela Ellard, staff director for the House Ways and Means Committee, flew to New York City to speak to business executives at the Chinese consulate.
While the itinerary seemed ordinary, the sponsor of the trip was not: Ellard listed Powell, Goldstein, Frazer and Murphy, a Washington law firm [clarification] and lobby shop.From the limited information available on Ellard's travel disclosure form, on which she wrote that the trip was to educate the executives "about Chinese accession to WTO [World Trade Organization]," the trip seems fairly routine. Maintaining normal trade relations with China was among the committee's top priorities, and Ellard's form was signed by Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who was its chairman at the time.
At the time of the trip, the firm also was registered as a foreign agent for the Embassy of the People's Republic of China, representing its commercial office on "Chinese accession to the WTO" and other issues, according to its filings with the Justice Department. Like lobbyists, foreign agents are prohibited from financing trips for members or staffers.
Don Carlson, Archer's former chief of staff, said he could not recall the specifics of Ellard's trip, but, "It would be unusual for a trip to be sponsored by a lobbying firm. We normally only traveled on behalf of trade associations."
Mike Daniels, a former partner with the firm, confirmed that it paid for the trip, but dismissed any suggestion of impropriety.
"This was not a lobbying effort." Daniels said. "We did business development for the law firm and for public service. It's not like we were playing golf in Scotland."
Powell Goldstein's foreign agent disclosure form for that period indicates that the firm spent no money on "entertainment or travel" for public officials. Daniels said that although the China Chamber of Commerce in USA organized the symposium, Ellard's role there was not part of his former firm's efforts on behalf of China. Rather, he said, her involvement was intended to promote Powell Goldstein's business.
"We helped arrange the seminar and we paid for Ellard," Daniels said.
House travel rules state that it is "advisable" for a member or aide who is invited on a trip to inquire about the source of funds used to pay for the travel. However, Kenneth Gross, an attorney who has worked extensively on Foreign Agents Registration Act compliance issues, said the congressional ethics rules seem to be stating, "If you screw up, proceed at your own risk."
Ianthe Jackson, spokeswoman for the House Ways and Means Committee, said Ellard would have no comment on the trip.
Ways and Means trips
Firms registered to lobby the federal government also appear to have subsidized some travel of the current Ways and Means chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., and his staffers. According to disclosure documents, from 2000 through 2004 Thomas signed forms authorizing seven of these trips — more than any member of Congress. All told, disclosure forms indicated that lobbying firms subsidized more than $6,200 worth of travel for the congressman and his aides.
Clark's lobbying arm, the Federal Policy Group, hosts a client retreat in Naples, Fla., that has been attended by Ways and Means Committee members and their top aides. The 2003 conference was held at the Ritz Carlton, described in a Clark Consulting invitation letter as a "spectacular resort with a variety of wonderful facilities, including a great spa."Four of the trips, including one taken by Thomas in April 2002, were reported as having been financed by sponsors named either Clark Consulting or Clark/Bardes Consulting. The firms are one and the same. In addition to managing compensation and company benefit programs, Clark Consulting — formerly known as Clark/Bardes Consulting — is a registered lobbying firm.
In one case, receipts filed with the travel disclosure form of former subcommittee staff director Jeffrey McMillen indicate that the $1,175 bill for the Naples conference was paid by Clark Consulting. McMillen's invitation letter was signed by Kenneth J. Kies, managing director of the Federal Policy Group.
Thomas' office deferred all calls on the subject to the Ways and Means Committee press office. Jackson, the committee spokeswoman, did not respond to several requests for comment about the Thomas office trips.
Former Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma also reported attending the 2003 conference and that his $2,579 in expenses was paid by sponsor Clark Consulting. Nickles, who now runs his own lobbying firm, did not return several calls for comment.
On April 2, 2001, Dunn traveled to New York City from Washington, D.C., for a gala dinner honoring companies with programs that advance women in business, an event that was attended by 1,800 corporate leaders. During her overnight trip, Dunn spent nearly $900, including airfare.Receipts indicate that a lobbyist also appears to have paid for the travel of Jennifer Dunn while the now-retired Republican congresswoman from Washington state was in office.
Ethics filings indicate that the bill for Dunn's trip was paid by Ernst & Young. In addition to its multibillion accounting and auditing operation, the company also is the nation's ninth-largest lobbying firm, according to federal lobbying records for 1998 through 2004 examined by the Center for Public Integrity.
Receipts filed for her night in New York show that Dunn and her business colleagues dined at an exclusive Italian restaurant, was chauffeured in a private limousine, and had a room at the Waldorf-Astoria that cost more than $300 for the night.
The bill for the limousine was signed by Mary Frances Pearson, an Ernst & Young lobbyist and a principal in its Government Relations division. The American Express card used to pay the limousine company was also billed for Dunn's airline ticket, hotel room and lunch, receipts show.
Questionable Senate trips
Dunn, who now serves as a senior adviser in the Government Affairs group of the firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, did not return several calls seeking comment on the trip.
While data show that members of the House have committed the majority of the apparent ethics violations, their Senate counterparts also have filed disclosure forms listing questionable sponsors.
In February 2000, then-Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and his wife Nancy flew to Utah to visit the proposed nuclear disposal site on Goshute Indian reservation land at Skull Valley. Murkowski, now his state's governor, indicated on his disclosure form that the roughly $2,800 in expenses was to be reimbursed by sponsor MGN Inc. That is also the name of a Washington lobbying firm.
Skull Valley is the planned site for a storage facility for up to 40,000 metric tons of commercially produced radioactive waste, though the state of Utah is fighting in court to block it. The project is spearheaded by Private Fuel Storage, a group of eight electric utility companies, which paid MGN nearly $1.2 million to lobby on its behalf from 1998 to 2004, according to a Center analysis of lobbying records.
Murkowski's office did not respond to requests for comment on his trip.
The Center's review already has prompted at least one senator to seek the Senate ethics committee's guidance on the funding of a trip.
In April 2000, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, flew to Arizona to speak at a seminar for the female partners of the law firm Vinson & Elkins. The firm, which was founded in Houston and has expanded into an operation with offices in 11 cities worldwide, is also registered to lobby the federal government. Hutchison's husband, Ray, is an attorney with the firm.
After Hutchison's office was notified of the Center's findings, the senator disclosed the information in a letter to the ethics committee, according to Ribbentrop. Hutchison's office declined to provide the Center with a copy of the letter.Dick Ribbentrop, Hutchison's chief of staff, said the senator received an invitation to the conference from a Vinson & Elkins partner who was not registered to lobby. The invitation, he said, did not make it clear that the law firm was under the same umbrella organization as the firm's lobbying arm — the situation that created the violation.
Ribbentrop said the ethics committee directed Hutchison to reimburse Vinson & Elkins for her $2,746 in sponsored expenses from the three-day trip, plus interest. Hutchison complied, he said, adding that her office plans to publicly disclose a copy of the cancelled check.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who in March backed a failed measure to create an independent office to investigate allegations of ethics violations involving lawmakers and lobbyists, called on the ethics panels of both houses to investigate any violations.
"The Ethics Committees have specific rules against lobbyists paying for private travel," Obama said in an e-mailed statement to the Center. "If these rules were violated, then the committees should investigate the trips and determine the appropriate punishment."
Confusion over sponsorship
Twenty of the disclosure forms the Center identified as listing a sponsor with a name matching that of a registered lobbying firm subsequently were amended by the travelers — in some cases years later — to indicate that a different sponsor paid for the trips. Staffers from several congressional offices also indicated in interviews that they had filed or were planning to file amendments.
The amended sponsor commonly was the lobbying firm's client or parent company. Such sponsorship of trips follows the letter of the ethic rules, if not the spirit, experts say. The difference between lobbying firms and their corporate clients are often so muddied that even members of Congress are unable to make the distinction.
In January 2000, for example, Matt Hill, an aide to Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., traveled to New York for a two-day conference on what his filing described as the "financial perspectives of electricity transmissions." On his disclosure form, Hill reported $1,348 in expenses paid for by the lobbying firm of Balch & Bingham.
When contacted by a reporter from the newspaper The Hill more than five years later, Smith's office amended the form, naming as the sponsors a half-dozen energy companies. One of them, First Energy Corp., has paid Balch & Bingham more than $1.7 million in lobbying fees from 1998 to 2004, according to lobbying records.
Smith's spokesman Chris Matthews said the original form was filled out incorrectly by a staffer. He produced a 1999 letter from the Senate Ethics Committee that backed the claim that the energy companies paid the bill.
"It was a simple paperwork mistake," Matthews said.
Matthews acknowledged that Balch & Bingham was a contact for the trip, but said he did not know whether the firm had any other part in the travel.
Dutko, a Washington-based lobbying firm, coordinates an annual technology conference at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania. The conference appears to be underwritten each year by a host of firms, including Microsoft, Alcatel and AT&T.On some disclosure forms, members of Congress or staffers appear to have confused the sponsor with the lobbying firm organizing the trip — even when the firm states explicitly in its correspondence that it is not the sponsor. This seems to be the case with filings for more than two dozen excursions that listed the sponsor or co-sponsor as the Dutko Group.
This reimbursement structure is outlined in e-mails and other correspondence Dutko executives sent to congressional officials attending the conferences. One staffer included an attachment, indicating that Dutko's role was limited to coordinating the conference. Nonetheless, on almost 30 occasions, members or staffers reported Dutko as the trip's primary or co-sponsor. The Center found that at least five of these forms were later amended to remove Dutko from the sponsor field.
In other cases, members walk a fine line between accepting trips from lobbying firms and their parent companies.
In August 2003, five Republicans and several of their wives traveled to Ireland's Ashford Castle resort for an international trade seminar. On each of their disclosure forms, representatives Clay Shaw of Florida, Howard Coble of North Carolina and Harold Rogers of Kentucky, and senators Smith and Nickles listed the lobbying firm of Kessler and Associates as the sponsor or co-sponsor.
More than a year and a half later, after they were contacted by a reporter for The Hill, the five members amended their forms, changing the sponsor for the Ireland part of the trip to Kessler and Associates' parent company, Century Business Services.The five lawmakers then traveled to a conference in London sponsored by the Ripon Educational Fund. Kessler and Associates founder Richard Kessler was on the board of the Ripon Educational Fund and is president of the formerly affiliated Ripon Society.
Matthews attributed the mistake, once again, to a paperwork error.
Pressure to change
Despite strict guidelines that prohibit congressional travelers from taking lobbyist-financed travel, they are not asked to provide any proof that would verify the legitimacy of a trip. Disclosure forms ask only for bare-bones information and relatively few travelers provide receipts. As a result, in many cases it's nearly impossible to prove who, in fact, has paid for the travel.
But the honor system that long has dictated the rules associated with private travel could be coming to an end.Even when members amend their disclosure forms, they don't have to supply additional documentation or proof, said Pam Gavin, superintendent of the Senate Office of Public Records, which manages the Senate's travel documents.
In late March, the Senate passed a reform bill mandating greater transparency from both lobbyists and lawmakers. Among other measures, the bill would require members to receive advance approval from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics before accepting privately funded travel.
Lobbyists, meanwhile, for the first time would be forced to disclose any travel arrangements they made for a member of Congress, and would be unable to lavish lawmakers with meals and tickets to sporting events — currently permissible under the rules.
The Senate bill would not, however, create an Office of Public Integrity to investigate claims of misconduct.
The House, meanwhile, passed a bill on May 3 sponsored by Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the Rules Committee, which would require the ethics committee to recommend changes to the travel rules by June 15. In the interim, members can voluntarily submit information on forthcoming trips to the ethics committee for pre-approval.
Rules Committee spokeswoman Jo Maney said the bill "is an acknowledgement that a problem does exist. It directs the ethics committee to review the rules so that the problems that you discovered do not happen in the future."
The House and Senate now must reconcile their reform bills in a conference committee. Experts argue, however, that the only way to remove the cloud of suspicion hanging over privately financed travel is to adopt a stronger enforcement process.
"The House ethics committee remains an abundant joke," said the American Enterprise Institute's Ornstein. "Everyone knows there is no ethics process. Nobody will hold [members] accountable."
Clarification: When first posted, this article stated that Powell, Goldstein, Frazer and Murphy is a Washington lobby shop. It is also a law firm.