State Assembly questions funding of Sweeney's trips to Lake Placid

Tales of bobsleds, steak dinners and taxpayer-funded lobbying are roiling New York politics, as a state Assembly probe of Rep. John Sweeney’s annual winter sports trip threatens to do in an already tough reelection bid.

The annual Congressional Winter Challenge, hosted by Sweeney (R-N.Y.) since 1999, brings members, staffers and lobbyists to the Lake Placid Winter Olympic facility in the heart of his district for a weekend of sledding, skiing and promoting the tourism-dependent regional economy.

While the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), a part of New York state government, formally invites guests, the state power authority’s assumption of $25,000 in event costs prompted three state Assembly committees to launch an investigation of the Challenge earlier this year, focusing on whether public money was put to good use. At a hearing last week in Albany, ORDA President Ted Blazer told state Rep. Richard Brodsky (D) and other Assembly members that Sweeney’s office helped assemble lists of possible invitees to the event.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has tracked the state probe for months, but Blazer’s testimony opened a new front to use in trying to unseat Sweeney, who faces well-funded former Clinton administration counsel Kirsten Gillibrand. When the House ethics committee blessed Sweeney’s role in the Challenge, it told him to stay out of the initial invitation process.

“Once the ORDA and the [U.S. Olympic Committee] — without your involvement — have issued an initial invitation to House members and staff to take part in the trip, you may send a follow-up to that invitation,” the ethics panel, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, wrote to Sweeney last September.

Both DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) lambasted Sweeney last week for declining to appear before Brodsky’s committee, with the DNC saying Sweeney “completely ignored” the ethics committee’s guidance. Sweeney, meanwhile, said the Assembly inquiry is a coordinated attack by Democrats.

“This hearing is a joke, a political witch hunt,” Sweeney said in an interview Thursday, just before his chief of staff formally declined a request to testify in Albany about his involvement in the Challenge invitation process.

“Democrats ought to be more concerned with Rahm Emanuel — all the scandals wrapped around him,” Sweeney added, referring to Chicago city employees who were allegedly asked to work on political campaigns, including Emanuel’s. Emanuel has not been implicated or charged.

ORDA leases Lake Placid’s Olympic facility, site of 1980’s famous “Miracle on Ice” Winter Games, to the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). Rep. Gerry Solomon (R-N.Y.), Sweeney’s predecessor in the House, conceived the Challenge in 1998 as a means to win federal money  that would pay for a new bobsled track and woo the Goodwill Games to Lake Placid.

Sweeney continued the nascent tradition after he came to the House, helping recruit Reps. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), Anne Northup (R-Ky.), James Walsh (R-N.Y.), Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) to participate in past Challenges, as well as aides to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), among others.

In an election year when Democratic criticism has made Republicans wary of any appearance of improper relations with lobbyists and special interests, Sweeney has touted the trips — for which entertainment bills have topped $11,000 — as a valuable promotion of his district’s Olympic legacy and economic needs.

The Assembly’s focus on the recreational elements of the Challenge, Sweeney said, “shows they don’t know what Lake Placid is.” Despite the House ethics rule requiring all travel to relate to members’ official duties, and the committee’s reminder that recreational activities must be “merely incidental to the trip,” Sweeney asserted that the committee “says it’s perfectly appropriate for me to promote the event.”

ORDA does not employ Washington lobbyists, but USOC government-relations director Stephen Bull has lent a hand by signing the invitations sent to Congress members and aides. Bull said that he participates in Challenge planning as a favor to ORDA and that he consulted Sweeney’s office for its advice on guest lists.

“I’ll use the trip for my own purposes, invite Washington representatives of corporate sponsors, people who have supported USOC activities or who I want to support USOC activities,” Bull said. “An appropriation to ORDA doesn’t help the USOC one bit. It goes to New York state.”

Brodsky and other state lawmakers have focused on the amount of federal earmarks and funding that Lake Placid received as a result of the Challenge. Although Republicans have played up ORDA’s $11 million in federal support since 1995, Brodsky pointed out that almost $5 million of that came before Sweeney took over the trip.

The Challenge investigation has exposed intrastate fault lines in New York, where national Democrats have targeted a trove of vulnerable GOP incumbents in an effort to retake the House. National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Thomas Reynolds sarcastically echoed Sweeney’s insinuations of a partisan probe: “I know Richard Brodsky’s running for attorney general, and it’s not about politics,” Reynolds said last week.

Brodsky in fact abandoned his campaign to succeed gubernatorial front-runner Eliot Spitzer (D) as New York attorney general two months ago after his daughter was diagnosed with kidney disease.

“The committee’s investigations have ranged across the state authority system, which was corrupt and ineffective,” Brodsky said in an interview. “Reform legislation resulted. This investigation has been part of that and has been going on for months.”

Brodsky replied to Sweeney yesterday, renewing his request for testimony, outlining a list of seven unanswered questions and reminding Sweeney that he has not impugned the congressman’s ethics.

“We have offered no criticism of your activities, your relationship with ORDA, the reasons for the decline in Federal support for ORDA … the conflict between your public statements … and the subpoenaed documents, nor will we until our investigation concludes,” Brodsky wrote to Sweeney, adding that “the public discourse is never enhanced by unfounded speculation on my motives or yours.”

Among the federal lobbyists attending the 2005 and 2006 Challenges, according to documents provided to The Hill by the Assembly, were Steve Pfister of the National Retail Federation, Thurgood Marshall Jr. of the Democratic Harbour Group, Robert Okun of General Electric and Ian Musselman and Shawn Smeallie of the American Continental Group, which represents the Erie County Medical Center, Syracuse University and other upstate New York entities.

Many lawmakers declined invitations from Sweeney, the documents show, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Reps. David Hobson (R-Ohio), Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.) and Ralph Regula (R-Ohio).