Power Trips

Published — June 27, 2006 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

A vacation from the rules

Some disclosure filings sketchy on details, tardy despite ethics oversight

Introduction

Much is known about James Dennis’ trip to Europe in the spring of 2003. The 10-day trip took the aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to Berlin, Geneva and London, where he discussed “international tax matters” with local officials. His transportation cost $7,700, his food $1,140, and his lodging $2,180.

But what is conspicuously absent from Dennis’ travel disclosure form is the name of the organization that paid his $11,000 in expenses.

A Center for Public Integrity study of disclosure records for congressional officials’ privately funded travel from January 2000 through June 2005 found that Dennis’ form is one of roughly 130 with the line for the sponsor’s name left blank. In effect, the omissions allowed special interests to spend more than $230,000 on travel anonymously.

The Center’s analysis found that hundreds and perhaps thousands of disclosure documents filed over the 5½-year period were incomplete, illegible or late. While many of these documents were later amended to fill in the blanks, some remain unclear, obscuring the details of privately sponsored travel from the public’s view.

Maria Najera, Bingaman’s deputy press secretary, chalked up Dennis’ omission to a simple mistake. Speaking on the aide’s behalf, she said that he hadn’t been aware that he had missed the line for the sponsor’s name.

Such omissions are “a reflection that nobody was watching until now,” according to Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen.”The form was reviewed by the ethics committee,” Najera said, “and he thought they would have notified him if there was anything missing.”

“The Senate ethics and the House ethics committees were not making sure that these forms were being properly filled out,” Holman said.

The travel disclosure forms are not archived online. Viewing them requires visiting the Senate Office of Public Records or the House Legislative Resource Center.

Although both handle financial disclosure documents as well as travel filings (the Senate office also processes lobbying disclosure documents), the House office has fewer than 35 employees and the Senate office fewer than a dozen. By comparison, the Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, has 391 employees.

Travel destinations, costs unknown

Some disclosure forms also left out other important details.

Several times, recently named House Majority Leader John Boehner and his aides failed to give the most basic information: where they went.

The Center’s analysis found that at least 25 of roughly 200 disclosure forms filed by the Ohio Republican’s office did not list the destinations. The sponsored expenses for those 25 trips collectively totaled about $42,000.

Madden acknowledged the omissions, but said that additional documents including “the destination and/or purpose of the travel” were filed along with the disclosure forms for most of the trips in question. However, nothing on the forms reviewed by the Center indicates that explanatory documents were attached.”Mr. Boehner and his employees believe in full and prompt disclosure rules established by the House of Representatives, as evidenced by the record of strong compliance and record-keeping.” Kevin Madden, the congressman’s spokesman, wrote in a statement to the Center. “Even with that strong record of compliance and disclosure, attention will be provided to fix errors and improve our efforts toward continuing full and complete disclosure.”

In all, the Center found more than 600 forms without destinations listed. Travelers reported $1 million in expenses for those trips.

Roughly 180 other forms — denoting expenses worth more than a combined $350,000 — did not list a destination, but did refer readers to an attachment. But these attached documents often are not available to the public. On at least 25 of these forms, the cost of the trip is not given or the expenses are vaguely described.

On seven forms detailing trips for Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R.-Fla., and his wife to locations such as Las Vegas, Zurich and Tanzania, phrases such as “hotel expense for 3 nights” or “series of meals, all widely attended,” are listed instead of the specific amounts spent, as ethics rules require.

“It is pretty difficult to follow up on the accountability, and we lose information about the role that money plays influencing policy if the forms are not completed,” Gary Bass, executive director of the government watchdog group OMB Watch, said of such imprecise disclosure.

Shaw’s filing for an October 2003 visit to Naples, Fla., did not disclose how much the trip cost. His form also indicates that the travel was paid for by Clark Consulting, a Washington consulting and lobbying firm. The address on the form matches that of the firm’s listed lobbying name, the Clark Consulting Federal Policy Group. Under ethics rules, lawmakers and staffers may not accept travel financed by lobbyists or lobbying firms.

While some lawmakers submitted incomplete disclosure forms, others filed late. According to travel rules, forms should be submitted within 30 days of the trip’s end. But the Center found that documentation for more than 750 excursions taken during the study period were filed late by at least six months and at least 50 forms were submitted more than three years after they were due.Shaw did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this report.

Rep. Maxine Waters and her aides have filed at least 60 of 69 trip forms late — some by more than a year. The California Democrat’s office accepted $156,000 in privately funded travel from 2000 through mid-2005.

Waters’ office declined to comment for this article.

Amending the record, waiving the rules

Amendments give travelers a way of changing the official record to correct mistakes and omissions. And as was often the case after the Abramoff lobbying scandal broke, amended filings also can serve to put officials’ activities in a better ethical light.

“Members of Congress and congressional staff were high-tailing it to the disclosure offices to file amendments and other forms,” Public Citizen’s Holman said. “What drove the added disclosure was all the allegations of abuses of travel, specifically Jack Abramoff.”

While amendments allow officials to alter the details disclosed about a trip, waivers granted by the ethics committees enable them to bend the rules.

The ethics committees can waive regulations governing privately sponsored travel, lobbyist-paid trips and other matters. And since the waivers are not made public, it is hard to determine whether a given traveler is in violation of the rules.

Bass, of OMB Watch, advocates that all privately sponsored travel be noted on members’ Web sites and that waivers be made public.

Waivers also allow officials to take longer trips than the rules allow. In both houses of Congress, lawmakers and their aides can travel abroad for up to seven days (excluding travel days). House rules allow a domestic trip to last up to four days; Senate rules allow up to three days. But trips can be extended with prior permission from the ethics committees.

Allowing two days for travel time, the Center found at least 160 international trips that lasted longer than nine days; a few lasted a month.

Holman, of Public Citizen, said the Center’s findings highlight a lack of oversight by the ethics committees.

“What surprised me is that even after these violations have been documented, [neither committee] is stepping up and imposing penalties.”

Alex Knott contributed to this report.

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