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How Lobbyists Still Fly Through Loopholes

Even after the Abramoff reforms, companies and countries looking to sway Congress find ways to ply lawmakers with fancy overseas trips.

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Shangri-la: Members visited Turkey.(iStock)

Dennis Hastert and Dick Gep­hardt couldn't stand each other when they led Congress a decade ago. But now they've moved to K Street, where the flood of money tends to wash over such personal differences. These days, they work hand in hand as two of Turkey's top lobbyists, with their respective firms pocketing most of a $1.4 million annual lobbying contract.

It was this business that took Hastert and Gephardt to Turkey last April, but more surprising than the odd couple's newfound alliance was their set of travel companions: eight members of Congress on an all-expenses-paid journey overseas.

 

It's widely believed that the 2007 rewrite of congressional travel rules spurred by the scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison banned such international dalliances. But that's far, far from true. A National Journal investigation has found that despite efforts to clip the wings of congressional travel planned and paid for by special interests, lawmakers are again taking flight. Indeed, the reality is that lobbyists who can't legally buy a lawmaker a sandwich can still escort members on trips all around the world.

Lobbyists who can't legally buy a lawmaker a sandwich can still escort members on trips all around the world.

More than six years ago, reformers pledged that tightened travel rules would end an era of globe-trotting tied to special interests and, as incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, "break the link between lobbyists and legislators."

 

It hasn't worked. Take it from Abramoff. "I just think they reshuffled the deck," he said, having emerged from prison as a self-styled reformer. "But it's the same deck. They're still playing the game."

Here's how it works.

The 2007 rules prevent a lobbyist for a corporate client from planning or paying for a lawmaker's trip. But the same rules allow such a trip if it's paid for by a foreign government. So while it does remain illegal for, say, a Google lobbyist to plan and accompany a lawmaker on a free trip abroad, if that same lobbyist does so on behalf of Turkey, it's perfectly legal. And if that lobbyist happens to have both corporate and foreign-government clients (as most do), they can still go abroad so long as it's a country and not a company footing the bill.

And that's only one of the loopholes the influence industry has exploited to help lawmakers score free travel. Today, a wide network of nonprofits—many with a clear agenda and some with excruciatingly tight ties to Washington's biggest lobbying operations—are putting together international congressional excursions. Some of these paper nonprofits have no staff or space of their own; they simply share with a sister organization that lobbies. Yet ethics officials in Congress have deemed them to be independent enough. In one instance, a lobbyist literally registered a new nonprofit—in his own office—that went on to pay for congressional travel abroad.

 

Big corporations bankroll some nonprofits, whose trips, in turn, can feature stops at the businesses of their corporate funders. As a bonus, the growing use of 501(c)(3) nonprofits, which occupy the same charitable rung of the tax code as soup kitchens and the American Red Cross, means that the wealthy and corporate donors underwriting congressional travel can do so in secret and get a tax write-off along the way.

So it's little surprise that members of Congress have busily boarded flights to far-flung destinations around the globe in recent years. They've collectively flown hundreds of thousands of miles to dozens of countries at a cost of millions of dollars. Lawmakers typically have settled into roomy business-class seats, often next to a loved one, for the long hauls ahead. Some headed to Ireland, where dinner at the Guinness headquarters was on the agenda. Many, many more spun through Israel. One openly gay lawmaker landed in Prague just in time to attend the city's gay-pride parade.

The tabs for the nonprofit-backed trips ran as high as $25,000. The lawmakers, however, never had to handle the bill.

Backers of the trips say they are saving U.S. taxpayers' dollars. And, of course, all the private trips are supposed to be strictly educational and fact-finding missions. But many itineraries include ample time to relax, visit museums, tour national parks, and whiz through major tourist attractions. The lawmakers are typically chauffeured from site to site, with all meals paid for and evenings spent at top-notch hotels.

"Some of the stuff we were involved in in the old days can't be done directly," Abramoff said. "But any smart lobbyist can basically, basically, if they want to play the game, they can get around any of these rules."

He paused.

"Legally."

TURKEY EXPLOITS THE BIGGEST LOOPHOLE

And so there was Dennis Hastert, who presided as speaker in the Abramoff era, on the same flight to Istanbul as members of Congress. Lobbyists had been intimately involved in the months of planning for the trip, with dozens of back-and-forth emails, phone calls, and meetings on Capitol Hill. As the trip neared, one lobbyist at Hastert's firm, Laurie McKay, held conference calls and emailed daily with the schedulers of the eight House members who participated: Republicans Virginia Foxx, George Holding, Adam Kinzinger, Todd Rokita, Lee Terry, and Ed Whitfield, and Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and Chellie Pingree. McKay even escorted three of them to Washington Dulles International Airport and helped them check in with Turkish Airlines. Former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (Chris Kleponis/Getty Images) Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Federal records indicate that five lobbyists—Hastert, Gephardt, Robert Mangas, Janice O'Connell, and an undisclosed lobbyist with the Caspian Group—joined the congressional delegation at some point in Turkey. How could this be? Didn't the 2007 rules ban lobbyists from such overseas excursions?

It turns out that the Turkey trip was sanctioned under a 1961 law, the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, which allows foreign governments to shuttle members of Congress and their staffs abroad if the State Department has approved the destination nations for "cultural exchange" trips. About 60 countries have such clearances. Despite the 2007 post-Abramoff travel law, lobbyists are still able to plan and attend these MECEA journeys.

Of all the loopholes that allow special interests a role in congressional travel abroad, none is as shrouded in secrecy as this one. The trips fall into a bureaucratic black hole. There is no centralized list of lawmakers who participate. The itineraries and costs stay secret, unlike privately sponsored trips. And lobbyist involvement never has to be disclosed.

Neither Congress nor the State Department claims to keep complete records, each saying the burden falls on the other. "Nope, that's not something that we have to do," State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman said of collecting itineraries. The House Ethics Committee has said it has "no jurisdiction." The Senate Ethics Committee pointed to the thin record of existing public documents.

Jock Friedly, creator of the website Legi- Storm, which tracks congressional travel and finances, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department for more detailed information several years ago. "I got bupkes," he said. "I got basically nothing." No reply to a National Journal FOIA request came in time for publication.

It is impossible to say yet how many such lobbyist-backed trips occurred last year. None of the eight lawmakers who went to Turkey have disclosed their trip yet—nor have they needed to. The trips are reported only on annual financial forms, which won't be released until June, at the earliest.

National Journal's investigation uncovered the Turkey trip through a review of foreign-government lobbying records maintained by the Justice Department and filed by Gephardt Government Affairs, Dickstein Shapiro (Hastert's firm), and the Caspian Group.

These foreign-sponsored trips are increasingly popular. NJ's review found that at least 18 lawmakers went abroad this way in 2013, including a 10-member delegation of the Congressional Black Caucus to China. While the final figure will likely be higher, 18 already equals the total number of lawmakers who went abroad on MECEA travel between 2006 and 2009, according to a Washington Post database of this type of travel published last year.

The bonds that Gephardt and Hastert built in Turkey could prove invaluable for all their paying clients, no matter who picked up the tab for the trip. Gephardt's other clients include Google, General Electric, and Goldman Sachs—and that's just the G's. Perhaps that's why federal records show that lobbyists with Gephardt's and Hastert's firms contacted about four dozen congressional offices in the first six months of 2013 alone to dangle a free trip to Turkey.

Gephardt's firm declined comment for this story; Hastert's did not respond to inquiries.

The two former congressional heavies certainly spent enough time with the Turkey delegation to make an impression. "He had a farm, and we talked about farming and [agriculture] issues," Pingree said of Hastert. "We had a chance to bond."

Which, for the lobbyists, is exactly the point. "Whenever you spend a few days with somebody, unless you're not very good at your job, you're going to bond with them, to create some ties with them that will likely last beyond the trip," said Abramoff, whose trading of overseas junkets for congressional favors landed him and former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, among others, in prison. "That's why people do these."

Pingree said that, at the time, she hadn't thought of her hosts' status as registered lobbyists. "I can picture one of them calling me up and saying, 'Hey, I met you on the trip,' " she said in a recent interview. But, she quickly added, "I don't think, personally, it would make a difference."

No other lawmaker returned calls about the trip.

TAIWAN'S FUNDING SCHEME

Then there is Taiwan. The island nation, in perennial conflict with, and in the shadow of, mainland China, prizes its relationship and alliance with the United States. As a result, the Taiwanese government, its lobbyists, and others have made it a priority to host a steady stream of lawmakers and their top aides.

They call. They email. They invite. They tailor trips to the lawmakers' specifications. The Taiwanese efforts to woo lawmakers and their staff members on all-expenses-paid trips are documented by unusually detailed disclosures from the lobbying firm that represented Taiwan for years, Park Strategies, filed with the Justice Department. When lawmakers go, they typically fly first class. They stay in high-end hotels. And they do plenty of sightseeing. GRAPHIC: $44,618 trip to Taiwan

"Kinmen will be kickass," wrote Jay Dutcher, then-chief of staff to Republican Rep. Tom Reed, in an email to Taiwan lobbyist Sean King when he heard that his 2011 free trip with his boss would include nearly a full day on the scenic island, also known as Quemoy.

An aide writing to Republican Rep. Peter Roskam ahead of his 2011 trip with his wife explained the schedule this way: "Basically Thursday and Friday morning would be sort of at your leisure to explore the area—Sun Moon Lake where you'd be staying is supposed to be a very nice resort area." The Roskams' trip included a visit with their daughter, who was teaching in Taiwan at the time.

The problem is not that members of Congress go to Taiwan. It's how Taiwan tries to cover the cost.

Lawmakers land on the island's shores both courtesy of the government and through nonprofit-funded travel. But different rules are supposed to apply to the different types of trips. Here's how it's meant to work: Through the MECEA loophole, lobbyists can plan the trips that are paid for by foreign governments, but then lawmakers' aren't allowed to bring their spouses along. Nonprofits can pay for spouses, but then lobbyists and foreign governments aren't allowed to have a hand in those trips.

Taiwan has blurred the legal line between those two types of travel—and sometimes even crossed it.

Lobbyists for Taiwan planned, for instance, a December 2011 trip for Rep. Bill Owens and his wife and then found a nonprofit, the Chinese Culture University, to front the costs. After ProPublica first revealed the trip's details, the New York Democrat reimbursed the university more than $22,000.

The Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee launched a probe, which also eventually ensnared Roskam, whose Taiwan trip was underwritten by the same university. The university and Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington stonewalled ethics investigators. In its final report, which cleared Roskam of wrongdoing and ruled that Owen's reimbursement was a sufficient penalty, the Ethics Committee said that because of the information blockade, it couldn't definitively determine whether the Taiwanese government has used the university as a pass-through. But it noted that such a setup would be against the rules.

"Sponsors must be involved in the planning and organizing of a trip," the panel said. "So-called 'money only' sponsors are not permitted."

The Chinese Culture University that was snagged in the Ethics probe is but one example. Other Taiwanese university-sponsored trips also appear to be government-backed travel in disguise. Taiwan's Fu Jen Catholic University has paid more than $670,000 to underwrite 56 separate trips in recent years, according to LegiStorm. National Journal's review of Taiwan travel records suggests that the Taiwanese government has had a hidden hand in many of the trips ostensibly organized and paid for entirely by Fu Jen.

Take the February 2012 trip that sent then-Reps. Dan Boren and Mike Ross to Taiwan with their wives. The two Democrats each listed Fu Jen Catholic University as the sole sponsor of their $27,000 weeklong journeys. But a draft itinerary that Boren filed with the House Ethics Committee was actually sent from the fax number of the congressional liaison office of Taiwan's de facto embassy. (Others have been, as well.) That alone isn't against the rules. The Ethics Committee has said such assistance from an embassy is, by itself, "not improper."

But the itinerary suggests far more than cursory governmental involvement. For almost every meeting, one or two Taiwan Embassy officials—Stephen Hsu or Frank C.W. Lee—was listed as an "escort officer." In contrast, no escorts affiliated with the putative sponsor, Fu Jen, are listed.

What's more, the itinerary said that American Samoa's delegate to Congress, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, joined Boren and Ross for large chunks of the trip. But Fu Jen didn't pay for Faleomavaega's free trip to Taiwan; the Taiwanese government arranged it through the MECEA program.

How did trips planned and paid for by a private university so seamlessly mesh with one planned and paid for by the government? Fu Jen and the Taiwanese government wouldn't say. They declined to answer specific questions.

Documents filed with the Ethics Committee show that Taiwan government officials have had a hand in Fu Jen-paid travel for at least the past six years. When Virginia Republican Tom Davis traveled there in 2008 with his wife, a formal invitation came from Fu Jen on April 24. But Gordon Yang, a Taiwanese government official, had already invited Davis a week earlier, on April 19. It was Fu Jen that picked up the more than $25,000 tab.

Yang is the same official who was caught planning Roskam's 2011 trip. And in an email to Roskam's staff released by the Ethics Committee, Yang wrote that Roskam would be taking "the same trip" as then-Rep. Dan Burton had earlier that year. Fu Jen paid for the Burton trip; the Chinese Culture University paid for Roskam's.

In response to National Journal's questions about its sponsorship of travel, Fu Jen Catholic University issued a prepared statement. Click to See Full StatementsIt matched, word for word, broad swaths of a prepared statement that the Chinese Culture University had issued 18 months earlier to Ethics investigators, even though the two universities are supposedly independent of each other. "A certain amount of our university budget is set aside as a fund to be used to sponsor foreign friends to visit Taiwan annually," read both statements.

Amid the headaches of an Ethics probe, Taiwan canceled its $20,000 monthly lobbying contract with Park Strategies last January. That same month, though, it hired Gephardt's lobbying firm for a $25,000-per-month fee. The contract details one of Team Gephardt's assigned tasks: "Encouraging members of Congress and staffers to visit Taiwan."

ISRAEL'S PUPPET NONPROFITS

More than 50 House freshmen boarded free flights to Tel Aviv last August. It was no accident that the greenest lawmakers made up most of the outbound delegations. Supporters of Israel had begun wooing the newly elected to come abroad before they even arrived on Capitol Hill.

The invitations for the all-expenses-paid trip were extended not just to the lawmakers but to a loved one as well. So the youngest member of Congress, 30-year-old Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, brought along his dad. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who celebrated his 55th birthday on the trip, invited his college-age son. Most lawmakers were joined by a spouse. South Carolina's Mark Sanford, who returned to the House in 2013 after an extramarital affair led to scandal during his term as governor, received a special ethics waiver to take along his mistress-turned-fiancée.

Israel is, by far, lawmakers' most popular overseas destination, and these freshmen's journeys were orchestrated by the biggest player in privately sponsored international travel: the American Israel Education Foundation. It has spent more than $6 million on congressional trips to Israel in the past five years, more than any other entity, according to records compiled by LegiStorm.

And the foundation hardly lacks an agenda. It shares staff, money, and an address with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel group that employs a dozen lobbyists and spends more than $2 million annually on lobbying.

As a lobbying organization, AIPAC itself isn't allowed to plan and pay for congressional excursions abroad. Yet its shadow foundation has received the blessing of congressional ethics enforcers despite the fact that its 2011 tax filings spell out: "The foundation does not have any employees. The foundation utilizes AIPAC employees." AIPAC even pays the $464,000 salary of Richard Fishman, the foundation's executive director—the man who signs the congressional travel forms.

"Everyone understood it to be an AIPAC trip," said a freshman representative who joined last August's excursion and was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

There were two congressional delegations last summer, one for Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and another headlined by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer for Democrats. Business was certainly undertaken: The trips included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. In between, the lawmakers and their family members were well fed, with a daily food budget of $129. One meal was at Decks, a restaurant perched above the Sea of Galilee. It was in that sea, two years earlier, that Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder stripped naked and jumped in, creating a ripple of headlines and headaches back home.

Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesman, declined to answer specific questions about the trips. He said in an email that they were "among the most substantive, educational, rigorous, and valuable opportunities for members of Congress" and that the foundation complies with all ethics and IRS rules.

The AIPAC foundation is not alone in this practice. It is just the largest of numerous nonprofits with agonizingly close affiliations to lobbying interests. It's a model that has been so successful that the nonprofit arm of J Street, a counterweight in the Jewish lobbying community that advocates for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, began putting together trips of its own. They are organized through a similarly connected foundation, the J Street Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which took four lawmakers to Israel last year.

A third nonprofit that pays for trips to Israel, the U.S. Israel Education Association, was founded by Christian activist Heather Johnston and sponsored congressional delegations in 2011 and 2013. The November 2013 trip that sent seven members of Congress and family members to Israel cost about $175,000. Both times, lawmakers were accompanied by Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, one of Washington's leading lobbies for conservative religious values.

The Family Research Council is not permitted to sponsor congressional travel because it employs lobbyists. And while Perkins's name and his organization appear nowhere on the travel forms that lawmakers submitted for approval to the House Ethics Committee, he has presented the trips almost as a joint venture. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"You have these relationships with the Israeli leaders," Perkins said to Johnston in a December podcast posted at TonyPerkins.com, "and here at FRC we have relationships with members of Congress and so we kind of put the two together and now we've twice now taken conservative members of Congress over to Israel."

Neither Perkins nor anyone for the U.S. Israel Education Association was available for comment.

Israel is not the only country to benefit from the efforts of advocacy groups. A long list of nonprofits supportive of Turkey have paid for congressional travel there. "We really don't have an agenda in trying to brainwash, or trying to convince people on a certain issue," said Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America, which has sponsored trips. "We feel like we're doing a great service." Besides running the nonprofit, McCurdy dishes out campaign cash to pro-Turkey politicians as treasurer of a political action committee. "I wear two hats," he said.

Another nonprofit intertwined with a lobbying entity is the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which paid $2,600 to send Democrat David Cicilline to the Czech Republic for Prague Pride week last August.

The foundation contracts staff from, and shares office space with, its sister organization, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group, which spent more than $1 million on lobbying last year. Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for both, said the groups are "intermingled" but that the trip fell within the foundation's mission and was planned by staff members who work only on foundation projects. Records show that one of Cicilline's companions on the trip, Ty Cobb, had deregistered as an HRC lobbyist only months earlier.

Cicilline is one of a handful of openly gay lawmakers in Congress, and Peter Karafotas, his chief of staff, said the congressman doesn't need to be lobbied on gay-rights issues. But could the foundation's free trip be perceived as a thank-you to Cicilline for his staunch support? "I suppose so," Karafotas said.

In another instance, a federal lobbyist actually incorporated a new nonprofit that then financed congressional travel. Lobbyist William Nixon created the Bahrain American Council in the K Street offices of his lobbying firm, as ProPublica has reported. Nixon and two other officials with Policy Impact Communications made up the group's original board of directors but soon turned over control to others. 

The Bahrain American Council then paid nearly $21,000 to fly Burton and his wife to Bahrain in 2012. The investment paid off almost immediately. Burton returned to Congress to deliver a speech hailing Bahrain as "one of our most important allies" in the Gulf region. And he suggested the antigovernment protesters there, who had been violently squelched, might "have been infiltrated by outside radical elements supported by Iran."

Nixon posted the speech to his Facebook page, calling it "insightful." The Bahrain American Council shared his post and called Burton's speech a "GREAT address on the floor."

Nixon said his lobbying shop has nothing to do with Bahrain and that he created the council as a paperwork-filing favor for a friend. "I helped him incubate it, is probably the best way of putting it," Nixon said. 

With so many private sponsors that have a political agenda funding congressional travel, it is little surprise the number of trips lawmakers are taking has been growing, with nonprofits spending $5.8 million in 2013 to shuttle lawmakers and their staffers on 1,856 trips around the country and across the globe, according to LegiStorm. That's the highest number since 2006, when the Abramoff scandal was in full swing.

CORPORATE INTERESTS

When Meredith McGehee wants to figure out who, exactly, is behind all this travel, she encounters what she calls the "Russian doll problem." McGehee, a longtime government watchdog with the Campaign Legal Center (and a registered lobbyist herself), says the problem with 501(c)(3) nonprofits—the kind permitted to underwrite congressional travel—is that they can keep their donors secret. That makes it almost impossible to follow the money through all the layers.

Let Jack Abramoff explain how it works: "Say there's a corporation, and they've got some foundation they're supporting—this is typically how it's done, by the way—and the foundation is going to be the originator of the trip and paying for the trip. What's the difference really? You've got the nonprofits, or educational groups, that are taking the member to see those things the lobbyist wants them to see. The effect is really the same, even if they are technically obeying the law."

One corporate-supported nonprofit that underwrites congressional travel is the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, with backers ranging from Exxon Mobil to the Nature Conservancy. In 2011, the group spent an eye-popping $100,000 to send four lawmakers and three of their spouses to South Africa on a venture that included three nights at the Shamwari Game Reserve, a tourist attraction where wildlife roam on much of the 49,000-acre property. The lawmakers also toured a Volkswagen manufacturing plant; Volkswagen is listed as a major contributor on ICCF literature. The carmaker did not return calls for comment.

In 2012, the conservation foundation took two lawmakers and their spouses to Brazil. During the trip, they toured a Coca-Cola recycling site and got a briefing on the company's conservation program. Coca-Cola was listed as a $25,000 donor in the program for ICCF's 2012 congressional gala, where foundation backers and lawmakers mingled over a meal that featured pistachio-crusted halibut and chocolate mocha tart. 

Olivia Kerr, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, said the company partners with ICCF to "advance environmental conservation" but also noted that the group "provides us with opportunities to educate U.S. policymakers on environmental challenges and … solutions."

John Gantt, the ICCF president, said in an email that donors are not entitled to plan or attend trips and that his group invites "a wide range of partners and non-partners … to participate in our congressional missions if they have something specific to add to the educational aspect of the mission." He declined to release the organization's contributors and the amount they've given. "No," he wrote. "Because it's our donor list!"

The chief oversight arms of Congress have failed to aggressively or even adequately enforce congressional travel rules.

Corporate-fueled nonprofits can play an even more inscrutable role in cultural-exchange trips financed by foreign governments. While the governments pay for the travel, nonprofits can act as intermediaries, often undisclosed, that invite staffers and lawmakers, set the agenda, and determine who gets to tag along. These nonprofits can and do have corporate sponsors, some of whom—or their lobbyists—join the delegations overseas.

One such group, the U.S.-Asia Foundation, spent nearly $1.6 million organizing congressional expeditions between 2009 and 2012, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Foundation President Richard Quick said that in 2013 his group organized five trips to China for approximately 50 congressional aides. He said "corporate representatives" (he didn't know, offhand, if they were lobbyists) accompanied the aides on at least three of the trips. "I understand why someone might be concerned, but it's very valuable to have them," Quick said of lobbyists, citing their expertise.

LIGHTING DARK CORNERS

The chief oversight arms of Congress have failed to aggressively or even adequately enforce congressional travel rules.

The House Ethics Committee had a working group spend three years mulling how to deal with private groups that underwrite travel and their connections with lobbying entities. In the end, the lawmaker-run panel decided to keep the status quo. Simple ideas like disallowing a nonprofit that shares an office or staff with a lobbying group from sponsoring travel were cast aside. Instead, the lawmakers declared there was just no "fair way" to differentiate between different nonprofits.

They buried the report, releasing it between Christmas and New Year's Eve in 2012.

"They have deliberately let it go back to the Jack Abramoff days," complained Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, the watchdog group that helped author the 2007 travel-tightening law.

The Campaign Legal Center's McGehee believes that was always the plan. "While the [2007] rules were certainly an improvement and very worthwhile, the exceptions that the lawmakers put into the rules essentially drew a road map for anyone wishing to evade," she said. "This is not an unintended consequence. This is an intended consequence."

"They have deliberately let it go back to the Jack Abramoff days."

The panel has meted out little punishment, even when lawmakers have been found to take trips paid for or organized by lobbyists or corporations in violation of the rules. In one convoluted yet precedent-setting case, the Ethics Committee said that Rep. Charlie Rangel broke House rules by taking trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008 paid for by earmarked corporate money, because his aides knew about the corporate backers. Yet other lawmakers on the same trips weren't accused of breaking the rules, because investigators said there was no evidence they or their staffers knew about the corporate backing.

The fact that the Ethics panel has to bless trips in advance appears to have made it less willing to punish lawmakers after the fact—even when, as in the Owens case, the role of lobbyists and the true sponsors of the trip were hidden during the approval process. 

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent office created in the Abramoff reforms of 2007 that has tussled at times with the lawmaker-run Ethics Committee, noted when referring to a recent travel probe against a staffer that "a person's ignorance of the true source of travel expenses is not an absolute shield from liability."

Still, lawmakers express exasperation that they can get the approval from the Ethics Committee for travel, as Roskam and Owens did, and then have the same trips end up the subject of headline-grabbing Ethics probes. William McGinley, an attorney who has represented clients, including Roskam, before the panel, said, "Perhaps now is the time for the Ethics Committee and stakeholders to review the record and determine if changes to the trip approval process should be made to ensure greater clarity for everyone involved."

After watching the feckless Ethics panel run by lawmakers who are reluctant to police their own colleagues for years, watchdogs know the change they'd like to see: Ending nonprofit-funded travel entirely.

Holman remembers broaching the topic with then-Rep. Jo Bonner, an Alabama Republican, back when he was chairman of the Ethics Committee in 2012. Holman said Bonner gave him the brush-off. He suspects he knows why.

A few weeks later the chairman and his wife boarded a flight for an all-expenses-paid trip to a wildlife preserve in Kenya. A nonprofit, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, picked up the $16,000 tab.

This article appears in the January 11, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Influence Air.

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