Lobby firm cuts ties with Taiwan after probe

A well-connected lobby firm has parted ways with the government of Taiwan after arranging a visit for a congressman that has become the subject of an ethics investigation.

Park Strategies, headed by former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), has informed the Justice Department it is no longer working with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), which is essentially Taiwan’s embassy in Washington.

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Lobbyists at Park Strategies had helped arrange a December 2011 trip to Taiwan for Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.). The congressman, who is now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, has since reimbursed the costs of the trip.

“As of January 1, 2013, Park Strategies, LLC no longer represents the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO),” the firm said in a Jan. 7 amendment that it filed with the Justice Department.

The filing marks the end of a lucrative contract for Park Strategies. The firm has represented TECRO since January 2009 and earned more than $813,000 in consulting fees and expenses, according to the latest Justice records. 

The termination comes amid a broader shakeup in Taiwan’s lobbying team that has seen TECRO sign up with several new K Street shops. 

Park Strategies declined to comment on whether the House Ethics investigation led to the contract being terminated, but indicated it would keep its office in Taipei.

“Other than to state that we remain committed to our Taiwan office and the Taiwan market, Park Strategies has no comment,” said Christopher D’Amato, executive vice president and managing director for the firm.

In a statement to The Hill, TECRO said it decided not to renew its contracts with Park Strategies and two other firms.

“The decision was made based on the common practice of reviewing existing contracts as they relate to the current needs of the employer,” TECRO said. 

The House Ethics Committee on Wednesday announced an extension of its investigation into Owens, who has denied any wrongdoing in connection to the trip to Taiwan.

“This matter never should have come before the committee,” attorneys for Owens said in a letter to the ethics panel’s chief counsel in September last year. “Representative Owens’ office acted consistently in good faith to engage in committee-approved, privately paid, officially connected travel. When questions arose about the trip, Representative Owens immediately repaid the Chinese Culture University for the trip and arranged a private legal briefing for his staff.”

Owens reimbursed the cost of his Taiwan trip — more than $22,000 — after ProPublica reported in May 2012 that lobbyists at Park Strategies had helped organize it, according to emails on file with Justice. 

Congressional ethics rules established after the Jack Abramoff scandal bar lawmakers from taking most trips that are coordinated by lobbyists. Owens disclosed to the Ethics Committee that the Chinese Culture University had paid for his trip. Emails on file with Justice show that lobbyists helped organize it.

Other lawmakers were contacted about Taiwan visits as well, according to emails from Park Strategies that are on file with Justice.

Lobbyists at Park Strategies contacted Rep. Tom Reed’s (R-N.Y.) office to help schedule an October 2011 trip. Reed later took a trip to Taiwan, and Alfonse D’Amato, the former senator, wrote a letter to Reed on Oct. 24, 2011, thanking him for the visit.

“PS Lets get together soon!” D’Amato wrote in his own handwriting after his signature on the letter.

Reed’s office said the Taiwan trip was disclosed in compliance with ethics rules.

“Congressman Reed’s trip to Taiwan in 2011, organized by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act [MECEA], was disclosed as required on the Congressman’s 2011 Financial Disclosure Statement. The trip was an opportunity to better understand one of our largest trading partners,” said Tim Kolpien, a spokesman for Reed.

Reed’s trip was paid for by the Taiwanese government through MECEA. Lawmakers are typically barred from accepting foreign governments’ gifts, but MECEA trips are allowed. Reed reported the trip on an amendment to his 2011 financial disclosure form.

Lobbyists for Taiwan also contacted Rep. Richard Hanna’s (R-N.Y.) office to try to arrange a travel date. Emails on file at Justice indicate that Hanna’s aides were concerned about how the trip was being organized.

“We have a few questions about it, especially from an ethical standpoint for the congressman and how it’s all working out,” Carla Virgilio, an aide to Hanna, wrote in an email on Nov. 22, 2011.

The lawmaker ended up deciding not to go to Taiwan.

“Congressman Hanna gave consideration to the possibility of visiting Taiwan, but the purpose of the trip became unclear and our office had concerns about the way the trip was being organized,” said Renee Gamela, Hanna’s communications director. “After a few months, the congressman determined he would not pursue this trip.”

In another one of the emails, a lobbyist at Park Strategies suggested the firm was working with Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) to set up a trip. Like Hanna, Tonko did not visit Taiwan.

“They offered the option. We did not accept that offer,” said Clinton Britt, a spokesman for Tonko.

TECRO has reworked its lobbying team in recent months; aside from dropping Park Strategies, the group ended its contract with Capitol Hill Strategies in November, according to Justice records. 

Taiwan has quickly bulked up its representation on K Street. In December, TECRO signed a yearlong deal with The Nickles Group, led by former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), with a $20,000 monthly retainer. Then last month, TECRO signed up with Gephardt Government Affairs, headed up by former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), for a yearlong contract with a $25,000 monthly retainer. 

Heather Podesta + Partners also signed a contract with TECRO in May last year. That agreement will also last a year, and has a $25,000 monthly retainer.