Poor form on Senate guest disclosure

Travelers' filing doesn't require companion names or expense details

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Over the course of 5½ years, U.S. senators and their aides reported taking companions on privately financed trips far less often than their counterparts in the House, a study by the Center for Public Integrity found.

A Center analysis found that the filings for about 16 percent of the privately funded travel taken by House members and staffers from January 2000 through June 2005 — about 2,700 of nearly 17,000 trips — reported a companion for whom the sponsor also covered expenses. In comparison, fewer than 5 percent of Senate forms (roughly 300 of more than 6,200 trips) disclosed companion travel.

The House disclosure form asks for the name of the accompanying family member and his or her relationship to the traveler. The document also provides spaces for itemization of companion transportation, lodging, meal and other expenses. The Senate form does not ask for the name of the companion — or if there was one at all.The reason for the disparity could be explained largely by the differences between the forms used by the two houses of Congress.

The only mention of companions on the Senate form is in small type just above the space provided for travelers to list their expenses: "Please include any expenses reimbursed for an accompanying spouse or dependant."

Senate travel rules don't require the member or aide to itemize companion expenses separately; the traveler may provide either the exact amount or a "good faith estimate" of the total reimbursed for all expenses. As a result, the disclosure is hardly uniform among travelers:

  • Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., reported taking his wife, Charlene, on 20 privately funded trips from 2000 through mid-2005, but his filings offered no breakdown of her travel expenses.
  • Sen. James M. Jeffords, I-Vt., listed in detail travel expenses for his wife, Elizabeth, on filings for trips to Cuba, Spain and Florida.
  • Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., reported travel that included with his wife, Christine, on 22 occasions: on 12 filings he gave a breakdown of her expenses; on nine others he combined their travel costs; expenses for the remaining trip included only the cost of an overnight hotel stay.

To add to the confusion, some Senate travelers don't mention their companions on the disclosure forms.

J. Scott Bensing, chief of staff to Sen. John E. Ensign, R-Nev., told the Center in an interview that he traveled with his wife, Lia, on privately sponsored trips to Italy and Turkey in 2004 and Australia in March 2005. While his filings show he accepted about $46,000 for the couple's combined expenses on the two trips, the forms do not indicate that anyone accompanied him. Bensing told the Center that he omitted his wife's name because the form does not require him to list companion travelers.

In January 2004, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, spent five nights at a Honolulu resort to participate in a conference on U.S.-China relations. On his disclosure form, Akaka did not indicate that he traveled with a companion, but his expenses for lodging and meals were identical to those on the filings of others who reported bringing one along. Melissa Hampe, the senator's legislative director, said that his wife, Mary, also attended the conference and that the omission from the form was an oversight.

Likewise, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, traveled to Antigua to tour the offices of trip sponsor Stanford Financial Group. When he disclosed expenses for the four-day trip, he indicated that airfare and meal costs were for two people, but provided no other information.

His spokesman, Don Stewart, said the senator traveled with his wife, Sandy. Stewart attributed the omission to the vagueness of the Senate disclosure form. "If there's no spot on the form to disclose [taking a companion], that's probably why it's not there," he said.

The Senate Office of Public Records manages the body's disclosure forms. According to its superintendent, Pamela Gavin, the Center has been the first to ask why the forms do not include space for listing details on companion travel.

"We never paid too much attention to that," Gavin said. "It never really occurred to us."

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