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Do travel rules cloak lobbyists' influence?

There are many rules about who can pay for lawmakers' trips. But critics say the legal distinctions make no real-world difference.

Published May 8, 2005

Click for Congressional Travel Breakdown graphic

WASHINGTON - It would have broken House ethics rules for Dan Meyer, a lobbyist, to take lawmakers to sunny Scottsdale, Ariz., for a weekend of hobnobbing and golf against the backdrop of the picturesque McDowell Mountains.

But as a member of the board of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization that bankrolled the trip, Meyer and other lobbyists on the board were allowed to entertain the lawmakers who attended.

Ethics rules forbid lobbyists from directly financing trips for members of the House and Senate, but there are no such prohibitions on travel provided by nonprofit charitable and educational groups.

According to an examination of congressional travel by the St. Petersburg Times, lobbyists often dominate the boards of directors of tax-exempt, nonprofit groups that take lawmakers on trips and retreats, from quiet weekends on Maryland's Eastern Shore to weeklong visits to Italy and Great Britain.

Over the past five years, scores of Democrats and Republicans have taken trips funded by groups such as the Congressional Institute, whose 15-member board includes 14 lobbyists, and whose funding comes partly from corporations they represent.

The practice follows the letter of the law, but advocates for more transparency in government say it makes mockery of the intent. They say the practice is just one more faucet pouring big money into politics.

"The question then is: Is there an organization there at all, that really is a properly organized and operated tax-exempt organization, or is it a mere conduit ... that's just been created to interpose something between the lobbyist and the member of Congress?" said Frances Hill, a national expert in tax-exempt organizations at the University of Miami.

"It's one thing to have an organization that has its own purposes and diverse sources of funding and its own programs. But if you've got this shell in the middle, is that a different case? And how do we know?"

The House Ethics Committee is preparing to investigate whether House Majority Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and other House members inappropriately accepted trips from lobbyists. Delay says he thought the trips were funded by nonprofit groups.

The distinction is important legally. But critics say it's a distinction without a difference.

The Times obtained lists of the boards of directors for several nonprofit groups that pay for congressional trips and retreats, then compared the names with public registries of federal lobbyists.

In many cases there were no connections. Some were like the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy research center in Washington that spends more on congressional travel than any other group. It has lobbyists on its board, but also members from academia, the arts and government.

Others had more tangential relationships: The American Israel Education Foundation has spent $580,000 in the past five years taking lawmakers from both parties to Israel. It has no lobbyists on its board, but tax records show it shares offices and funding with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobbying group.

Still others have boards of directors that read like a who's who of Washington lobbyists. Consider the Ripon Educational Fund, a nonpartisan group that takes lawmakers, business leaders and academics on an annual trip to Europe.

According to the nonpartisan Political Money Line, Ripon Education Fund was the second-largest spender on congressional travel since 2000, spending about $688,000 on trips to Ireland, Rome, London and Budapest.

Members of Congress invited on Ripon trips gave high marks for providing a hands-on sense of trade, defense and other issues.

"You do travel to some interesting spots, I don't deny that ... but it's very focused on work," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, who has traveled with Ripon to Scotland and Austria. "You don't just show up, greet someone at the door and go shopping."

Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, said there's little difference between a lobbyist funding a trip directly, or having a lobbyist-backed organization pay.

"They are all done to curry favor with members, to influence the way members think," he said.

Mike Dubke, a board member of the Ripon Educational Fund, said his group always submits the itinerary for its annual Europe trip to the House ethics committee, for advanced approval.

"This is a way for our elected officials and our business leaders and academic leaders to have a fruitful exchange that might not otherwise be possible," Dubke said. "When folks are looking at these trips, they really need to think about and contemplate the value. They're an important part of how we make laws in this country, and our public policy."

* * *

Who is behind a trip can be tough to unravel.

Nonprofit groups don't have to reveal their sources of funding, or disclose connections between them and lobbyists.

Even members of Congress get confused. Consider a trip that Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, and his wife, Emilie, took to London and Ireland in August 2003 with four other lawmakers.

According to Shaw's travel disclosure form, the Ireland portion of the trip, at a cost of $2,691, was paid for by Kessler & Associates, a registered lobbying firm headed by lobbyist Richard Kessler. Under House rules, that would have been improper.

However, Shaw spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said the Ireland trip was actually funded by Century Business Services, Kessler's parent company - which is not a registered lobbyist and can legally pay for congressional travel.

Gitcho said Shaw's office incorrectly listed Kessler as the sponsor because the invitation was written on Kessler & Associates letterhead. Shaw is considering amending his disclosure form.

The remainder of Shaw's trip to the United Kingdom, which cost about $11,400, was covered by the Ripon Education Fund.

At the time, Kessler was finance chairman of the Ripon Educational Fund's board of directors.

Now he's president of the Ripon Society, a separate Republican group that in January spent more than $24,000 hosting 12 lawmakers for a policy conference in Key Biscayne, including Foley and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

"The interaction between our corporate members, members of Congress, and our policy experts was truly enthralling," executive director Elvis Oxley said in a statement afterward. "This was yet another Ripon Society event that brought policy to the forefront in an exceedingly congenial atmosphere."

At its bucolic retreats in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, the Congressional Institute holds panels on hot policy topics, from tax reform to Social Security. Same with the Public Governance Institute, a sister group, which recently held a retreat at a Chesapeake Bay resort for members of the House Homeland Security Committee.

"We're not an advocacy organization; we don't take stands on issues and don't try to sell solutions," said Jerome Climer, president of both institutes. "We do work on complicated issues, unbundle them."

The Congressional Institute holds at least one retreat for Republican leaders each year, and another for all House and Senate Republicans, usually at the Greenbrier, a resort in the West Virginia mountains . This year's luncheon speaker was President Bush.

The group's board chairman is Michael S. Johnson, a former Republican aide and a lobbyist for the OB-C Group. His clients have included several institute donors, including Honeywell, Motorola and General Electric, according to Political Money Line.

Other board members include David A. Bockorny, who represents a wide range of corporate interests, and Edward Hamberger, a lobbyist and chairman of the Association of American Railroad, which has spent $46-million on lobbying since 1998, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Members of Congress who take trips say they don't feel lobbied and that they find the sessions helpful. A spokesman for Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said the Public Governance Institute's homeland security retreat was filled with briefings by experts. "Events like that ... are really helpful to members, because they don't necessarily have the time to sit down with these folks otherwise," spokesman Drew Hammill said.

At the Scottsdale retreat in January, 15 House members first elected in 1994, including Foley, gathered at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort with former members. As with most institute events, the members paid their own transportation, while the institute covered room and board, at an average cost of about $1,400 per person.

Speakers included Dan Meyer, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Foley said nobody ever lobbies him at these events. "They know who I am, I know who they are, I know what their companies do. I don't need a song and dance about something they're trying to influence and engage on."

[Last modified May 8, 2005, 00:46:16]

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