Records: members traveled on lobbyists' dime

In a potential violation of congressional ethics rules, five members of Congress traveled to Ireland in 2003 at the expense of a lobbying firm, disclosure records show.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), then-Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Reps. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) attended a four-day international trade seminar at Ashford Castle in County Mayo during the August recess.

Disclosure reports for the five lawmakers show that Washington lobbying firm, Kessler & Associates Business Services Inc., footed the $25,000 bill, even though congressional ethics guidelines bar lobbying firms from paying for lawmakers’ travel.

In response to inquiries from The Hill, the members’ aides confirmed that the lobbying firm had been listed as the sponsor and that they were in the process of checking into the matter.

Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Coble, said Richard S. Kessler, a veteran lobbyist and founder of Kessler & Associates, told him Monday that the lobbying firm’s parent company, Century Business Strategies, an accounting and consulting firm, had sponsored the trip.

“Kessler & Associates has told us that they did not pay for the trip,” McDonald said. “We are trying to obtain documentation of who paid so we can go back and review this with the ethics committee,” he said.

Kessler did not return several phone calls.

Ethics guidelines allow companies, trade groups and nonprofit organizations, but not lobbyists or lobbying firms, to sponsor travel.
A spokeswoman for Shaw, Gail Gitcho, said in an e-mail that Shaw’s office would amend his disclosure report to list Century Business Services as the sponsor. She did not respond to further questions.

Leslie Kupp, a spokeswoman for Rogers, said the congressman will file an amended disclosure report, but she would not provide details.

Smith spokesman Tucker Bounds said Smith’s office is still reviewing the matter.

The findings are the latest in a string of reports that lobbyists paid for congressional travel in recent years, in violation of long-standing ethics rules.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) reportedly took three trips abroad at the expense of Jack Abramoff, a rainmaker lobbyist now under investigation by Congress and the Justice Department. Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) admitted last week to having taken lobbyist-sponsored trips.

In Ireland, the lawmakers and several of their wives spent four days at Ashford Castle, a 13th-century luxury hotel situated on 350 acres on the banks of Lough Corrib. The grounds contain an equestrian center, target-shooting facilities, tennis courts and golf course.

The group spent 13 hours from August 4 to 8 in round-table discussions ranging from “TEA 3 — U.S. Transport Policy Approaches for the 21st Century” to “Intellectual Property and the Protection of Enterprise,” according to a draft schedule of activities printed on Kessler & Associates letterhead.

McDonald said there was at least one other meeting, on the Irish peace process.

The outing was titled “Client and Congressional Seminar & Retreat,” although it was not known if Kessler & Associates clients were present. Kessler at the time represented drug companies Pfizer, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott Laboratories, in addition to cigarette manufacturer Altria, electric utility company Exelon and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

After leaving Ashford Castle on Aug. 9, all five lawmakers attended the Ripon Society’s 21st Annual TransAtlantic Conference in London. All recorded the conference as a separate trip sponsored by the Ripon Educational Fund. Ethics guidelines allow such back-to-back, privately financed trips. The Ripon Society, a think tank for moderate Republicans, named Kessler executive director in 1981 and president in 2004. 

Coble wrote to the House ethics committee June 21, 2003, several months before the Ireland trip to seek guidance on the “stacked trip itinerary.”

He outlined the timing and sponsorship of both segments, noting that “transportation, lodging and food for [the Aug. 4-8] portion of the trip would be paid by Kessler & Associates Business Services, Inc.”

The ethics committee responded July 9 and approved the timing of the trips. “The Kessler and Ripon trips appear to meet the criteria for such ‘stacked’ trips,” the letter said.

The committee also noted, however, that the House gift rule bars a member or employee of the House from accepting travel expenses from a registered lobbyist.

Several lawmakers’ offices referred to the ethics committee’s letter as proof that the trip, including the sponsorship, had been approved ahead of time. At the same time, however, some prepared to amend the filings to name Century Business Services as the sponsor.

Congressional ethics experts said the change in sponsorship would likely bring the trip in line with ethics rules, since Century Business Services is not itself a lobbying firm.

“Registered lobbyists and lobbying firms are clearly differentiated from other firms and individuals in the ethics rules,” said lawyer Jan Baran at Wiley, Rein & Fielding. “I don’t recall [the] ethics committee dealing specifically with a lobbying firm that is owned by another company, but [the] logic of what they have would suggest that the parent company is not treated the same under ethics rules.”

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group, said the example showed how little regard members of Congress had for the travel rules. “It shows you how broken system is. If they are listing an impermissible source, it shows that as far as they’re concerned, a lobbyist was paying for [the trip]. It also shows that members are not paying much attention to the rules.”

Other members of have reported trips financed by the parent company of a lobbying firm. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) reported an April 2002 trip to Bakersfield, Calif. — his own district — funded by Clark Consulting, the parent firm of Federal Policy Group, a tax lobby shop headed by Ken Kies. Clark Consulting also funded trips for Shaw and Nickles, including one in which Shaw wrote Kies’s business address on the sponsorship line of the disclosure report.