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.

Turkey. Akdamar Island (Akdamar Adasi) in Van Lake. The Armenian Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross (from 10th century)
National Journal
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Shane Goldmacher
Jan. 10, 2014, midnight

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.

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.

Destinations most frequently visited by members of Congress on privately sponsored trips. National Journal

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.


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.

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.

GRAPHIC: $44,618 trip to Taiwan National Journal

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.

Click to See Full Statements National Journal

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.”

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.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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 TonyPer­, “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.

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!”

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.

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.”

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.


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