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Caribbean Island Trip and Ethics Loopholes

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Privately paid travel may have fallen over the past year, and more precisely since 2005, but some lawmakers are still taking lavish trips to exotic locales. And some of them might be breaking the new ethics rules that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer stated there would be a “zero tolerance” policy. The New York Post has an exposé on a privately paid trip (not everyone stopped taking them) to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten taken by six members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Post accuses the lawmakers of accepting travel from an entity that employs a lobbyist, going on a trip that included lobbyists, and failing to properly file their disclosures.

Officially the trip was sponsored by the Carib News Foundation for a conference in St. Maarten. The Foundation, however, accepts contributions from corporate sponsors, some just for the Foundation’s operations and others specifically for the conference. These corporate sponsors included Citigroup, AT&T, Verizon, Pfizer, Macy's, and American Airlines. Since, ethics rules forbid the acceptance of travel from an entity that employs a lobbyist, and all of these companies employ lobbyists, the question is whether a sponsor of the Carib News Foundation and their conference needs to be listed as a sponsor of the trip. This is the primary question at the center of possible ethics violations.

According to the Post, the Foundation, in filling out the proper disclosure forms, checked the box, "I represent that the trip sponsor(s) has not accepted from any other source funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip." This statement is not properly backed up by statements made by Carib News Foundation CEO Karl Rodney and representatives of the corporate sponsors:

[I]n his opening remarks in St. Maarten, Rodney, who has organized 13 annual conferences, thanked all of the corporate sponsors by name. He expressed gratitude to AT&T for its sponsorship at all prior conferences and singled out Citigroup as being the biggest conference sponsor this year. "And so we want to say thanks to Citi," said Rodney. "It's a great team to have working, and great partners." Citigroup Vice President Michael Flanigan, who attended the St. Maarten event and is listed as a member of the conference planning committee, didn't try to hide his company's association with the event during a speech he gave to attendees. "This year was significant for Citi," Flanigan said, speaking to a half-full room. "For the first time we are the lead sponsor of this premier event."

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct states that:

...when a nonprofit organization pays for travel with donations that were earmarked, either formally or informally, for the trip, each such donor is deemed a “private source” for the trip and (1) must be publicly disclosed as a trip sponsor on the applicable travel forms and (2) must itself be required to satisfy the above standards on proper sources of travel expenses.

It appears, through the indirect admission of Rodney and corporate representatives, that corporate funds were used to finance the conference. The question remains as to whether the conference counts as part of “the trip.” Rodney states that the Foundation funds 50% of the conference, and it is possible that all the funds earmarked for the lawmaker trips came from the Foundation’s coffers. The Committee has further rules relating to the involvement of corporate sponsors:

[I]n order for a Member or staff person to receive Committee approval to accept officially-connected travel from a private source, the source must certify to the Committee that it has not accepted from any other source funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip

“[A]ny aspect of the trip” certainly sounds as though the conference would count as part of the trip. Looking at the definitions in another disputed matter of ethics violations in the Post story puts doubt into what could define a “trip” or “aspect of [a] trip”.

The Post also points out that the presence of lobbyists at the conference may violate the rules banning lawmakers from accepting travel in which lobbyists accompany them. The use of simple language is where legal loopholes are born. And this is no exception:

In addition to prohibiting Members and staff from accepting officially-connected travel from a private source that retains or employs lobbyists or agents of a foreign principal, for most trips the travel provisions of the gift rule prohibit Members and staff from accepting travel from a private source if the official will be accompanied by a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal on “any segment” of the trip (House Rule 25, clause 5(c)(1)(A)). The term “segment” means any part(s) of the travel to and from the destination, rather than the event itself or location being visited that is the purpose of the trip. Whether a lobbyist may be involved in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging a trip also depends on the source of the travel expenses.

So there you go. A “segment” does not include the segment of the trip that includes the purpose of the trip. If a “segment” of a trip is only defined by the coming and going part of “trip,” does this extend to “any aspect” of said trip? Doubtfully, considering the sponsor, the Foundation, is paying not just for airfare, but for food and lodging.

This trip is certainly a case of questionable twisting of ethics rules, if not an outright violation. The loopholes evident make the restrictions placed on privately paid travel easy to circumnavigate, and thus ought to addressed.