Caribbean trip under scrutiny by House panel

The House ethics committee is reviewing a trip Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and several other members took to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten last year.

Ethics committee Staff Director Blake Chisam and Todd Ungerecht, counsel to the panel’s ranking member, have asked for information from a conservative group that has raised questions about a November 2008 conference at the St. Maarten Sonesta Maho Bay Resort & Casino.

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Earlier, the new Office of Congressional Ethics interviewed staff members to some lawmakers who attended an event at the sun-swept resort billed as the Caribbean Multi-Cultural Business Conference.

Besides Rangel, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (Mich.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Donald Payne (N.J.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen attended the event.

The conservative National Legal and Policy Center’s president, Peter Flaherty, traveled to St. Maarten and found evidence that corporate sponsors paid for the conference.

House rules imposed by Democrats after they took back the House in 2006 bar lawmakers from accepting travel lasting more than two days if corporations that “employ or retain a registered lobbyist” are underwriting or organizing any part of them.

Lawmakers who attended listed the New York Carib Foundation, a non-profit group affiliated with a newspaper aimed at New York City’s U.S. Caribbean immigrant community, as the sponsor.

But photos and transcripts taken by Flaherty show evidence of corporate involvement. Several banners above and below the main podium included corporate logos of Pfizer, Citigroup, IBM, Verizon, AT&T, Macy’s and American Airlines. Flaherty also heard Kilpatrick and Payne thank business “sponsors.”

Chisam and Ungerecht contacted the conservative watchdog group on May 22 to request information on the conference. Flaherty replied with a letter to the ethics committee on Friday, along with 18 photos, a transcript of the morning conference sessions, including Kilpatrick’s remarks, notes of Payne’s remarks, and a copy of the conference program.

Flaherty also filed a formal ethics complaint calling for full-fledged investigation into the trip.

“My characterization of the trip as a ‘junket’ is based on my observation that the sessions were lightly attended,” Flaherty wrote in the complaint. “Most attendees spent significant time at the beach or the pool. Members of Congress attended the sessions when they had a speaking role.”

Rangel spokesman Emile Milne declined to comment, citing the office’s “no comment” policy on ethics committee matters.

Jackson Lee’s office said she paid for the travel herself. It is unclear whether Jackson Lee used personal or office funds for the trip’s costs; her office did not respond to specific questions about how she paid for the trip.

Jackson Lee Chief of Staff Leon Buck said OCE interviewed him as well as the office scheduler about the trip in March.

“We just showed them the background information that we had received from the [New York Carib News Foundation],” Buck said.

It’s unclear whether the panel has launched a full-blown investigation into the Caribbean trip or whether the committee has expanded its ongoing probe of Rangel’s personal finances and fundraising activities to include the travel. The panel usually announces the formal launch of an investigation after taking a preliminary look into the matter.

The interviews of staffers suggest the OCE, an independent panel created last year, looked into the Caribbean trip and found enough evidence to recommend a full ethics committee investigation.

Rangel late last week predicted that the ethics panel would wrap up its investigation “very soon.” He also said he expected to be called in for questioning.

Democrats imposed stricter limits on corporate-sponsored travel to prevent the type of abuse unearthed during the Jack Abramoff scandal. Lawmakers who attended Abramoff-organized golf junkets to London and Scotland, as well as other luxurious locales, listed several nonprofits as having paid for the travel even though corporations footed the bill.

In calling for an investigation, Flaherty highlighted Payne’s public recognition of each corporate sponsor during an evening session. He also noted Payne’s denial in a previous article in The Hill that he saw posters bearing corporate logos above and below the podium where he and other speakers made remarks.

“As evident from the photographs, Payne’s representation that he did not see the logos on the podium sign or on the banner above the podium is implausible,” he said. “Corporate sponsorship was also obvious in the program and in items provided participants at registration, including a bag with the Macy’s logo on its side, and a notebook embossed with the Citigroup logo.”

Payne’s office had not responded to a request for comment by press time.

Flaherty attended the conference for more than two days until the police approached and questioned him just hours before a dinner featuring Rangel.

“I was detained on the Sonesta property by the Police Korp of St. Maarten,” he wrote. “I was questioned and my driver’s license was taken from me. I was asked where I was born, my occupation, my marital status, my purpose for visiting St. Maarten, my hotel room number and many other questions. I was released after being told that ‘conference organizers’ did not want me to attend additional events.”