by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Five members of Congress recently disclosed that a registered lobbying firm paid for their trip to Ireland's Ashford Castle.
When their travel -- an apparent breach of Congressional rules -- was made public, they simply changed their documentation to show that a not-for-profit organization, not a lobbyist, had picked up the tab.
These are among the findings of a new study by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), American Public Media (APM), and Medill News Service (MNS). It charges that at least 123 of Washington's top lobbyists "occupy the same ethical gray area now threatening to bring down high-profile influence peddler" Jack Abramoff.
The study found that, like Abramoff, registered lobbyists sit on the governing boards of non-profit organizations called 501(c)(3)s, which get their name from the section of the tax code under which they are authorized.
"As board members, these lobbyists can help set policies for the groups and are privy to inside information about the non-profits -- including their sponsorship of congressional travel," the study found.
Bob Williams, the CPI reporter who wrote the report, told IPS, "While our findings will be surprising to many people, we were struck by the lack of transparency and proper disclosure when it comes to these types of congressional junkets."
"The current disclosure system is so weak it almost invites abuse. It is nearly impossible to identify who is actually paying for these trips under the current rules," he said.
Dozens of registered lobbyists sit on the boards of non-profit organizations that aggressively sponsor congressional junkets. While lobbyists are prohibited from paying for congressional travel, the non-profits they are connected with are free to arrange and finance such trips. Many of these lobbyists arrange such travel, however, and even go along on the trips.
They include such policy influence heavyweights as the Aspen Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Council for National Policy, the International Republican Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's National Chamber Foundation, and many others.
Contributions to such groups are tax-deductible and, because they are non-profits, by definition are supposed to be restricted primarily to education, research and service activities. IRS regulations prohibit 501(c)(3) groups from attempting to influence legislation as a substantial part of their activities. But the IRS code does not define what it means by "substantial."
Sponsors of the study analyzed every congressional junket between January 2000 and mid-2004. Among the findings:
At least 850 trips with a total cost well over four million dollars were paid for by non-profits with one or more registered lobbyists on their boards. Many of those trips included a member's spouse or children.
Among the international destinations of the trips were Paris, London, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, South Korea, Denmark, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa and Greece.
The domestic destinations included Las Vegas, Miami, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boca Raton. Also on the list were St. Croix, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico.
Many of the trips included substantial tabs for fine food, first-class accommodations and other items, such as golf outings.
Just four groups sponsored about 600 of the more than 850 trips: the Aspen Institute, the Ripon Educational Fund, the International Management and Development Institute and the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council. The total cost of those trips was 3.7 million dollars.
The study found that one such group, the Ripon Educational Fund (REF), spent more than 1.3 million dollars sponsoring a single conference in London during the summer of 2003, according to its tax return. Eighteen members of Congress attended, along with more than 100 corporate representatives, according to Ripon board members.
At the time of the trip, the REF board of directors counted among its members at least four registered lobbyists, including former U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari, a New York Republican.
While such non-profits can legally pay for trips for members of Congress and staff, congressional rules forbid registered lobbyists or agents registered to represent foreign interests from paying for such travel themselves.
Credit card receipts and other documents that have surfaced in recent weeks appear to show that Abramoff personally paid for travel and entertainment for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. DeLay's office has said he was unaware that Abramoff had personally paid for the trip to England and Scotland, which included a golf outing at the famed St. Andrews course.
DeLay's office has said that the majority leader believed the trip was paid for by a non-profit called the National Center for Public Policy Research. Abramoff was a member of that group's board of directors at the time of the trip in 2000. Abramoff went along on the trip with fellow lobbyist Edwin A. Buckham. Both work for Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP.
Disclosure forms on privately sponsored trips by congressional members and staffers supply only bare-bones information. In fact, some of the most suspicious evidence in the DeLay case, Abramoff's credit card receipts, was leaked to the press, not found in public records.
At a hearing into the Abramoff affair at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Wednesday, Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, and Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, quizzed witnesses on what the lawmakers described as an elaborate web of fraud and greed.
Neither the members of Congress who traveled to Ireland, nor the ethics committees in the House or Senate have made public any travel receipts for the trip. And unlike in the DeLay case, there has been no public investigation.
In some cases, the distinction between a lobbying firm and an affiliated non-profit is so vague even members of Congress fail to note the difference. Neither trip sponsors nor congressional members and staffers are required to disclose any such documents to substantiate their disclosures.
Even when apparent violations of congressional travel rules are disclosed, there is rarely a public investigation, or any punishment meted out, the CPI report concluded.
June 24, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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