Amid much scrutiny, mixing pleasure and politics goes on

Lawmakers have been on high alert about taking lavish trips in the last few months, especially if they involve a round of golf. With so many news reports about embattled Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff globe-trotting and hitting the links with Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and his top aides and other lawmakers — and the questionable funding of these trips — Capitol Hill has been filled with talk that lawmakers are avoiding privately sponsored travel altogether.

But as with so much conventional wisdom in Washington, the truth is more complicated. While a few privately sponsored trips have been canceled, elaborate political fundraisers centered on purely recreational activities, such as golf, skiing or hunting, located far outside the confines of the Beltway are still a common occurrence.

Even if lawmakers are more sensitive these days about teeing up with lobbyists at posh resorts, one would never know it by witnessing a scene at Dulles International Airport on Sunday night when lobbyists returned from the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, a high-end course in southwestern Oregon. One lobbyist from Accenture, an accounting firm, even disembarked sporting a long-sleeve Bandon Dunes polo shirt.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) held the fundraiser, an annual event for his political action committee Impact America. A score of telecommunications, financial-services and energy lobbyists paid $3,000 to $5,000 apiece to join him for the promise of unfettered access for a weekend with the second-term Oregonian and member of the Finance and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees.

Smith paid Bandon Dunes $14,472 last year to reserve the resort for his guests, according to disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Bandon Dunes charges $175 per person for a round of golf and at least $300 for rooms during the peak season, from May to October.

When asked if he felt any uneasiness about holding the event in light of the additional media scrutiny of lawmaker travel involving golf this year, Smith simply said he thought it was a welcome departure from the usual dinner or cocktail-party fundraising circuit.

“Republicans and Democrats have had golf fundraisers for decades,” he said.

Smith, the heir of a frozen-foods fortune, seems to have no qualms about his close ties to the business community. He readily admitted that he flew to the event on FedEx’s corporate jet and returned via Union Pacific’s plane.

Smith flies on corporate jets on a regular basis and reimburses the corporations from his campaign committees, according to FEC records.

Smith held the same fundraiser the same week in June last year, according to a lobbyist who attended. On June 24, 2004, he disclosed expenditures he made ranging from $907 to $1,903 for “prepaid airfare” to Comcast, FedEx, Union Pacific, Florida Power & Light, Holly Corp. and Huntsman LLC on FEC forms. To fly on a private jet, a lawmaker must pay the cost of a first-class ticket plus $1.

Republican Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) also flew out for the event, as did Reps. Chris Chocola (Ind.), Ander Crenshaw (Fla.) and Steve Buyer (Ind.). Ensign noted that he played poorly but used the trip to enjoy the chance to spend some time with his son.

There is nothing unusual about Smith’s fundraiser except perhaps its timing, which came just days after the latest hearing into Abramoff’s dealings with Indian tribes and the travel he arranged for lawmakers, some of which is alleged to have been paid for with tribal gambling money. Under House and Senate rules, it is illegal for lobbyists to pay for members’ travel.

And Smith is not immune to the controversy. In 2003, he accepted a trip paid for by a lobbying firm, as reported by The Hill in May. Kessler & Associates Business Services Inc. underwrote a four-day trip to Ireland to learn about international trade issues.

At the time of that report, Smith’s spokesman declined to comment.

Smith has plenty of company when it comes to holding recreational events as fundraisers.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is hosting a golf tournament in July at the Oakland Hills Country Club, the home of the 2004 Ryder Cup matches and the 2008 PGA Championship. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), a cardinal on the Appropriations Committee, will hold an event in August at Pebble Beach, the world-famous coastal golf course in California.
In the winter, several lawmakers including Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), hosted trips to exclusive skiing resorts in Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming.
Despite all the sound and fury over revelations about lawmakers’ travel, these types of fundraising outings have become so common that raising the issue elicits a sigh from watchdog groups.

“The reality is that there are a lot of smaller fundraisers that go on that connect members to industry leaders,” said Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Former Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.) agreed there was nothing unusual about the event. “It’s been done for a long time,” he said. “[Former Speaker] Tip O’Neill [D-Mass.] used to do it for his political action committee. Republicans and Democrats have done it for years. Even with everything that is going on right now, who cares? Everybody has them.”

One Democratic lobbyist, however, disagreed with the ho-hum reaction. 

“You wonder how long Republicans can bifurcate their message to mainstream America with this gross display of wealth,” the lobbyist said.