CBC member vows fair probe of Caribbean trip

The chairman of a House ethics probe into a Caribbean conference attended by members of the Congressional Black Caucus is himself a CBC member who attended the same event in 2005.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the former judge chosen to chair the ethics probe, has vowed to lead a fair investigation into trips taken by CBC members to St. Maarten in 2008 and Antigua and Barbuda in 2007.

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But the ethics watchdogs that have called for an investigation into whether corporations paid for the trips, which would violate House ethics rules, question whether a CBC member should be leading the official probe set up by the House ethics panel.

They also argue that it is improper for someone who attended the Caribbean conference to lead an investigation into whether it violated House rules.

“There is certainly an appearance problem — an appearance problem that in no way reflects on the integrity of Mr. Butterfield,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.

McGehee and other ethics experts argue that Butterfield’s 2005 trip is a conflict of interest because of relationships he may have developed with conference organizers and sponsors. Butterfield’s trip occurred before Democrats imposed new House rules on such trips.

Butterfield said he realized “you cannot completely divorce yourself from relationships.” He also said he would step down or recuse himself if he felt conflicted at any time during the investigation.

“I have a judicial background and always had the reputation of being fair — never had any criticism or complaints,” Butterfield said in a brief interview. “I’m confident that I can uphold the House rules and ensure that the investigation is even-handed.”

In a separate e-mail, Butterfield added that the investigation focuses on issues specifically related to compliance with the new House rules, which were implemented in 2007. He said his participation in the Caribbean multinational business conference in 2005 had no impact on his ability to lead the investigation.

Articles in The Hill and the New York Post have raised questions about the conferences, which listed the New York Carib News Foundation as the sole sponsor even though corporations underwrote all or parts of their costs. The foundation is a nonprofit group affiliated with a newspaper aimed at New York City’s Caribbean immigrant community.

House rules imposed by Democrats after they took back the majority 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 the trip.

Photos taken at the 2008 conference show banners bearing several corporate logos, including Pfizer, AT&T, Verizon, American Airlines and Citigroup. Against the backdrop of corporate logos, two CBC members thanked the corporate sponsors by name, according to recordings made of conference sessions.

Members attending the 2008 conference include Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen (D).

Rangel, his chief of staff George Dalley and Christensen, Thompson, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), who chaired the ethics panel at the time, participated in the 2007 trip to Antigua and Barbuda.

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), set up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to better police ethics issues, first reviewed the Caribbean travel and apparently found enough evidence to recommend further inquiry by the ethics committee. The OCE has come under criticism from the CBC, which has complained about a lack of minorities in the office.

In 2005, Butterfield attended the same Caribbean conference his panel is now investigating — before House rules were changed. The conference was held at St. Thomas’s oceanfront Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort and Spa on Nov. 10-13 of that year.

“That trip was privately funded and approved by ethics,” Butterfield said in the e-mail.

Butterfield listed the New York Carib News as the sole sponsor of the event, even though corporations underwrote some of the costs.

On the travel disclosure forms, Butterfield lists the costs of the trip at $995. He said $695 of that was spent on lodging and $300 on a flight. He lists no costs for meals during the three-day stay.

It is unclear how much the resort charged for conference lodging because rates change from year to year and are lower than individual rates depending on the size of the conference and how many rooms are blocked. According to the hotel’s website, rates for November 2009 are $259 a night for a resort-view room, $293 for a bay view and $342 for a panoramic ocean view.

Peter Flaherty, the president of a conservative watchdog group that uncovered evidence of the trip’s corporate sponsors, said he was disappointed with Butterfield’s appointment.

“The CBC really sticks together — you can see their solidarity in the face of these ethics charges,” Flaherty said. “To put one of their own members in charge of the investigation just shows that nothing has changed — the ethics process is still a complete mockery.”

McGehee also questioned whether a CBC member should be leading the probe.

“In this case, this is a trip that is publicly connected to the CBC — and only CBC members were participants. To have a CBC member lead the investigation is not the best way to ensure a publicly credible and accepted result,” McGehee said.

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