Family trips

House rules on travel companions were skirted — then loosened

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Members of the House of Representatives and their staffs skirted congressional travel rules about 190 times in a 5½-year period ending in mid-2005 by bringing unauthorized companions on trips bankrolled by private groups, the Center for Public Integrity has found.

A review of disclosure documents filed for travel from January 2000 through June 2005 showed that some lawmakers and their aides violated the 1995 House travel rule which states that only one family member — limited to a spouse or child — may be taken on privately funded trips. Others bypassed the regulations by getting waivers from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct that allowed other relatives to accompany them.

That particular rule, intended to prevent privately sponsored travel from turning into excursions for the whole family, was loosened in January 2005. But predating that change, the Center found many infractions, including cases of siblings flying to Israel and Spain, and of mothers traveling to New York and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

The Center's investigation found two types of violations committed by House members and staffers: accepting all-expenses paid trips for parents, siblings, grandchildren and others excluded under travel rules; and accepting sponsored travel for more than one guest. Evidence of similar infractions was not found in the Senate, possibly because the disclosure form used by that chamber does not ask travelers to identify a companion or itemize that person's expenses. "There's potential for abuses in having private sponsors pay for family vacations," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog organization in Washington.

In 2001, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, improperly accepted transportation and lodging expenses for her sister, Lee Helen Johnson Willis, for a trip to Grenada.

The trip was organized and paid for by the New York Carib News, which publishes a newspaper aimed at the Caribbean community in the United States. The firm organizes an annual multinational conference to discuss U.S.-Caribbean relations, and legislators are invited to attend at the company's expense.

Her sister's participation in the three-day trip cost Carib News more than $1,200. After inquiries by the Center, Johnson reimbursed the travel sponsor for her sister's expenses. Her staff also filed an amended disclosure form with the House Office of the Clerk.

"The money was reimbursed to the sponsor and the matter has been cleared by the ethics committee," said Murat Gokcigdem, Johnson's chief of staff.

In the same year, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., took husband Dexter Lehtinen, a former U.S. attorney, and daughters Amanda and Patricia on a sponsored trip to Tel Aviv. Her disclosure form listed the purpose of the trip was "to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the Hispanic community."Gokcigdem declined to comment on the circumstances of the 2001 trip. "The trip is now in compliance with the House rules and the matter is closed," he said.

Ros-Lehtinen, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, was given the Friend of Zion award by the municipality of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, a Jewish cultural organization.

The trip cost the cultural group nearly $24,000, more than $16,000 of which was spent on the congresswoman's family members. Her disclosure records show that roughly $10,000 was spent on helicopter transfers to Masada, entrance fees, VIP airport assistance and "gifts for family."

A week after her disclosure form for the trip was filed with the House Office of the Clerk, Ros-Lehtinen filed an amendment stating that she had reimbursed the Jerusalem Fund for her daughters' expenses, a total of about $10,000.

Alex Cruz, a spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen, said that as soon as they found out that they weren't allowed to accept payment for the children's expenses, they reimbursed the money.

However, when asked by the Center how Ros-Lehtinen learned that she was in violation of the rule, Cruz did not offer a response. Such information is not available from the House ethics committee, which does not comment on specific cases."Ileana is super ethical," he said. "She is beyond reproach."

Congressional staffers also seem to have violated the travel rules regarding which, and how many, family members can take sponsored trips.

Lisa Williams, chief of staff for Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, took her brother and sister-in-law to the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on a 2003 trip paid for by the U.S.-Korea Exchange Council. Faleomavaega is the senior Democrat on the on the International Relations Committee's Asia and the Pacific subcommittee.

On her disclosure forms, Williams listed accepting $900 in meals for her relatives, as well as $300 in "activity fees," And that the purpose of the trip was to "examine ROK [Republic of Korea] alliance and tensions."

Williams did not return numerous calls seeking comment for this report.

Loosening the rules

In 1995, a bipartisan group of lawmakers tried to tighten the House travel rules in a bill that would have required members to sign a form every time they wished to be accompanied on a trip. The form would have declared "that the attendance of the spouse or child is appropriate to assist in the representation of the House of Representatives."The debate about who is entitled to accompany members of Congress on privately funded trips or whether companions should be allowed on such tours at all began years ago.

The provision was stripped from the final bill, which instead said that sponsored trip costs "may include travel expenses incurred on behalf of either the spouse or a child" of the member or staffer.

In the first legislative session of 2005, lawmakers loosened the rules even more. By replacing the words "spouse or child" with "a relative," they codified what had long been practiced through the granting of case-by-case waivers: siblings, parents and even fiancés being taken along on trips at the expense of special interest groups.

The provision was part of a package of ethics rules changes pushed through the chamber in early January by the Republican leadership. Perhaps its most controversial provision was one regarding ethics committee investigations that was interpreted by many political observers as a GOP effort to protect then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, allowing him to retain his leadership post even if he were to be indicted — as he was months later — in a Texas campaign finance case.

Allowing relatives other than a spouse or child to be eligible to go on sponsored trips was the proposal of then-ethics committee chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and ranking minority member, Rep. Allan B. Mollohan, D-W.Va.While this and other proposed ethics rules changes were either abandoned or reversed, the alteration to the travel rules remained in place.

Mollohan recently stepped down from the committee after the National Legal and Policy Center filed a complaint with the Justice Department questioning his personal financial disclosures as well as millions in earmarks he secured for nonprofit groups that he had helped establish. Hefley was replaced on the committee in February 2005.

Kim Sears, a spokeswoman for Hefley, said the rule change was meant to be "accommodating of members who didn't have a spouse or a child."

The change allowed Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., to take her niece, Celine Purcell, on a four-day trip to Dublin in August 2005 to attend a conference on U.S.-Russia-Europe relations. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization that brings together legislators and experts to discuss policy issues, paid about $3,300 for the trip, Eshoo's disclosure filing shows.

Eshoo, who is divorced, received waivers from the ethics committee to take her sister, Veronica Georges, on trips to Barcelona, Spain, in 2002 and Hawaii in 2003 also paid for by the Aspen Institute, records show. The total additional cost for the sponsor was roughly $5,200.

Waivers often granted

Hefley's spokeswoman, Sears, said that, "waivers were granted on a case-by-case basis," and only when they "made sense."Until 2003, the ethics committee's inclination was to grant waivers to members who wished to go on trips with relatives other than a spouse or a child. Sometimes waivers were given "after the fact" if congressmen or staffers made a good case about why they had broken the rule, said a House staffer familiar with the committee's work during those years, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the committee does not make its waiver decisions public. The Center for Public Integrity's only information on whether waivers were granted came from the traveler's, or in some cases the sponsor's, response to inquiries.

On Oct. 30, 2003, Hefley and Mollohan co-signed a memo urging members and their staffs to comply with the travel rule.

"At times Members or staff who are unmarried, or whose spouse or child is not available for a particular trip, wish to be accompanied by another relative or some other individual, but this is not permissible under the rule," they wrote. "It is likewise impermissible under the rule to accept travel expenses for one's spouse and child, as the rule is clear that expenses for only one or the other may be accepted."

Before that memo was issued, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., got a waiver to take her mother to the 2002 Glamour magazine "Women of the Year" awards ceremony in New York, at which she presented a prize to one of her constituents.

Waivers allowed Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., to bring his brother Bill, a New Jersey state assemblyman, on eight trips taken from 2000 through 2004 at an additional cost to sponsors — mainly the Aspen Institute — of more than $14,000, disclosure records show.The two-day trip cost Glamour more than $4,400 in airfare for Lee's mother. Lee's communications director, Nathan Britton, said the congresswoman invited her mother on the trip because Lee is not married. The high cost of the plane ticket might have been because of the last-minute reservation, he added.

Press secretary Kerry McKenney said that Payne's brother accompanies him on trips because the congressman is a widower. She also said that Payne's brother enjoys the trips because he is "very interested in international issues."

Dick Clark, head of the Aspen Institute's congressional program, said the House ethics committee allowed members to take brothers and sisters to some institute-sponsored trips until two years ago.

"At a certain point they said, 'We are not doing it anymore,'" said Clark, a former Democratic senator from Iowa.

Bringing the kids

Jerry Climer, president of the Congressional Institute, which primarily funds Republican trips, sees a collegial value in families present in a political setting.

"It's hard to be mean in front of someone else's kids," Climer said.

Since 1999, the ethics committee has granted group waivers for travelers' families for four events organized by the Congressional Institute or its sister organization, the Public Governance Institute.

Climer said he finds the rule that limits the number of family members that legislators can take on trips at the expense of private sponsors "undesirable."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., ran afoul of the rule limiting the number of companions in 2004 on what his disclosure filings denoted as a "fact finding" trip to France."I am completely convinced that in the name of good ethics we have destroyed members' capacity to interact and compromise," he said. "They don't get to know each other on a human basis."

Rohrabacher, then-chairman of the Science Committee's Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, traveled with his wife and young triplets to Paris, Toulouse and Biarritz, sponsored by aircraft manufacturer Airbus. A month after filing his initial disclosure form, he reimbursed Airbus for the $2,280 spent on his children's airplane tickets.

"When we filed our original disclosure, we were under the assumption that the babies' flights were free," said Don Ernsberger, Rohrabacher's deputy chief of staff. "Only later we learned that some payment was made."

Attached to the original travel form filed by Rohrabacher, however, is a breakdown of expenses showing two $4,803 tickets and three $760 tickets.

"We know we can't accept that money," said Ernsberger. He added that the couple took their triplets to France because "sometimes it's difficult to find someone to take care of them."

 

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