Rush to file late travel reports

Members of Congress filed over three-dozen late travel reports in the past three weeks, according to a survey by political funding web site Political Money Line.  The late filings come on the heels of a string of media reports detailing potential ethics violations involving privately-funded travel.

House ethics guidelines require that members file disclosure reports for most types of privately funded travel within 30 days of the trip.  However, reports filed within the past few weeks corresponded to trips as far back as 2000.

Reps. John Linder (R-Ga.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) each filed nine new reports chronicling trips in 2003 and 2004.  Linder disclosed an $18,000 visit to London in August 2003 at the expense of the Ripon Society, a moderate Republican think tank, and a $19,000 trip to Israel and Jordan paid for by the Jerusalem Fund.

Waters detailed a series of smaller trips, most of them to appear as a keynote speaker at conferences in the continental United States.

A spokeswoman for Linder did not return a call for comment before press time.  Waters was en route to Washington from her Los Angeles district and could not be reached for comment, said a spokesman. 

Political Money Line maintains a database of congressional travel between 2000 and 2005.  A periodic update to the database revealed the bevy of late reports, said Kent Cooper, one of the web site’s founders.  The new reports disclosed a total of $130,000 in travel expenses. 

Privately funded congressional travel has been under the microscope in recent weeks after press reports revealed that superlobbyist Jack Abramoff paid for trips abroad for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).  Over a dozen members of Congress have since been accused of traveling on lobbyists’ dime, a violation of ethics rules, and the ensuing melee has prompted many members to review their travel records to ensure they are in full compliance.  

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) filed five late reports in recent weeks, including a January 2000 outing to Dallas financed by the National Association of Homebuilders and a January 2004 visit to India paid for by the Confederation of Indian Industry. 

“This is an issue that was brought to our attention, we immediately moved to complete the record regarding Mr. Hoyer’s travel and have now done so,” said Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Bernards. 

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) also filed five late reports.  He detailed a $10,000 trip to Chicago in June 2003 sponsored by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group, said that the late filings showed that members of Congress did not take the reporting requirements seriously.

“Were it not for the spotlight being put on congressional travel right now, these reports would still not be filed,” he said.  “It also shows there is no effective enforcement mechanism on the Hill for these types of things.  If they were worried about repercussions from filing late or not filing at all, they would have been filing these reports on time.”

Other members who filed late reports were Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) with three; Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), each with two; and Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), each with one. 

“Quite honestly, we were going through the files [to prepare] the annual financial disclosure report and it turned out that these [trip reports] were originals not copies.  We discovered them and filed them,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ chief of staff.

Michael Mershon, press secretary to McGovern, said that the two recently disclosed trips had been disclosed on the congressman’s annual financial disclosure report but not on separate travel reports.  They discovered the error recently and filed the reports. 

Members of Congress have also been scrambling to amend earlier reports after they have come under scrutiny.  Some members claimed to have incorrectly listed the sponsor of a trip.  Others have added travel expenses or tweaked the dates of travel.