Trips to Caribbean appear to have broken House rules

For at least five of the last six years, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and several other members of the Congressional Black Caucus have spent a few days each fall at a different luxurious Caribbean island resort.

The trip’s official mission is to facilitate business and diplomatic relationships between the region and the United States.

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This year’s trip took place Nov. 6 to 9, the weekend after the election, on the sun-swept 10-acre Sonesta Maho Beach Resort in St. Martin. The ethics committee approved the Caribbean trip, as it has done for several years, but new information uncovered about its corporate funding raises questions about whether the trip violates a two-year-old ethics rule passed after Democrats regained the House.

The New York Carib News Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with a newspaper geared toward the city’s Caribbean community, is listed on members’ travel disclosure documents as the trip’s sponsor.

When the nonprofit’s CEO, Karl Rodney, sought ethics committee approval for the trip, as the new rules require, he checked a box on the form certifying that the foundation “has not accepted from any other source funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip.”

After House Democrats regained the majority on a campaign of draining the Washington swamp, they passed tougher new rules governing privately funded trips for members. The ethics rules bar corporations or other entities that employ or retain a registered lobbyist from paying for multi-day trips, either directly or indirectly.

Yet two spokeswomen for American Airlines, the largest carrier from the U.S. to the Caribbean, told The Hill that the company recently provided in-kind donations of tickets for Rangel and five other members of Congress to fly from their districts to St. Martin, a tropical island in the northeast Caribbean. According to ethics experts, the American Airlines donation of tickets for members to use for a specific trip is a clear violation of House ethics rules governing travel. American Airlines has spent more than $6 million on lobbying in the first three-quarters of this year.

“We provided in-kind support,” said Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines. “It was sometime in the fall when the tickets were provided to the foundation. We’ve done this for the past couple of years.”

Pantin would give neither the exact date nor an estimate of the overall cost of the tickets. She also could not say whether the tickets were sent to the members of Congress directly or provided through the foundation, nor would she provide a contact person at the nonprofit who organized and planned the trip.

A review of the foundation’s 2006 report to the IRS, the latest publicly available, shows that the nonprofit had no revenue or expenses from June 1, 2005 to May 31, 2006, even though it claimed to have sponsored a trip to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in the fall of 2005. According to the IRS report, the group also spent nothing on direct charitable activities, including conferences.

In 2007, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and then-Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), joined Rangel, Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) at the annual conference. At the time, Tubbs Jones chaired the ethics committee.

On a form submitted to the House ethics committee, the New York Carib News Foundation describes its mission as providing “education and information about the Caribbean in the area [sic] of Business, Education, Health and Culture, [sic] Promote Good neighborly [sic] within the United States and the hemisphere.”

The form stated the members of Congress were selected “based on their demonstrated interest, expertise and assignment in the U.S. Congress.”

The trip is closely associated with the CBC; only CBC members are invited each year.

The New York Carib News referred comments to a New York-based public-relations firm, which asked for written questions but did not answer them.

Meredith McGehee, an ethics expert at the Campaign Legal Center, said the corporate sponsorships, combined with the IRS 990 form showing no money flowing through the foundation to pay for a 2005 trip, raises red flags about whether the foundation is trying to skirt the new ethics rules that Democrats imposed.

“If members of Congress are accepting these financial benefits of housing, food, airplane [travel], the source matters,” McGehee said. “You’re not allowed to let these foundations be conduits for this money. The source of the resources for this travel becomes a critical question.”

In a brief interview last week, Rangel said the ethics committee cleared the trip, so he thought it was OK to participate.

When The Hill told Rangel about American Airlines’ donation of tickets for the trip and the New York Carib News’s 990 form showing no expenditures and no revenue, he said the onus was on the ethics committee to find out whether trip sponsors are making false statements to the panel.

“That’s for the ethics committee to investigate,” he said. “You cannot expect members of Congress to figure out how they go about doing it.”

{mospagebreak}A Rangel spokesman echoed his boss’s explanation in a written statement.

“If there is a problem with this trip, it is not with the care and attention that Congressman Rangel showed to House ethics rules and standards in making plans to attend the conference,” said Emile Milne. “Congressman Rangel complied with all House ethics rules and received the approval of the ethics committee for this trip, as the documentation clearly demonstrates. The foundation submitted the proper certification as well, so there was no reason to believe that anyone was paying for the trip besides the sponsor. Congressman Rangel made certain he complied with the rules, his staff complied with the rules, and he believed the sponsor was complying with the rules as represented to the ethics committee.”

The ethics committee, which does not comment on internal matters, did not respond to an inquiry.
McGehee argues that members are responsible for making sure trip sponsors are abiding by the House ethics rules because members should know all the intricacies of the rules best — they vote on them each year, and it’s their reputations and careers that are on the line.

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“The question that is really at play here is, Are these forms filled out accurately?” she said. “And who is responsible for finding that out? The member. Privately financed travel for members of Congress is not a right. There are all kinds of groups and entities trying to buy influence with members of Congress. The burden is on the members to show why taking this trip should be permitted.”

In this instance, Rangel and the other members of Congress who participated this year were already on notice that the trip’s funding was questionable.

The New York Post published an article in mid-September about the New York Carib News trip Rangel and others took to Antigua and Barbuda last year that triggered queries about its corporate contributions.

Besides Rangel, five other CBC members traveled to St. Martin last month. The others were: Democratic Reps. Donald Payne (N.J.), Jackson Lee, Carolyn Kilpatrick (Mich.), Thompson and Christensen. Only Jackson Lee said she paid her own way for the trip this year.

Kilpatrick and Christensen said they filed the appropriate forms with the ethics committee and received its approval. Payne’s office did not respond to several calls.

Thompson, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, also cited the ethics committee’s approval of the trip as the reason he thought it was financed properly. He said the conference helped him understand the Caribbean’s homeland security challenges.

“I learned about some of the problems that the island has in terms of port security, drugs and human smuggling,” he said.

The CBC Foundation and the trip also share several major donors, including Citigroup, Verizon and AT&T. Eric Eve, Citigroup’s vice president for global communication, sits on the CBC Foundation’s board of directors, and spoke at the conference.

At this year’s 13th annual trip, billed as a “multinational business conference,” Rangel served as the keynote speaker for the opening ceremonies and for the gala dinner and awards presentation. He also spoke alongside Dr. Compton Bourne, president of the Caribbean Development Bank, at a lunch on the topic of the “Caribbean, a solid investment.”

An invitation to the conference sent to Kilpatrick from the St. Martin government stated that the trip offers “a fine opportunity to combine business with pleasure on our island, with a wide variety of activities, a pulsating nightlife, absolutely duty-free shopping and 37 beautiful beaches to choose from.”

In its filing with the ethics committee, the New York Carib News estimated the cost of airfare at $410 and three nights’ lodging at the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort at $405, with an additional $175 for “registration/transportation.”

A search of the cost of the cheapest “supersaver” room on the hotel website, however, calculated a three-night stay at $748.68 with tax. For the same time period, a premier ocean view would run $1,157.07 and a deluxe suite king would cost $1,524.60.