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Caribbean trip may have broken rules

Several lawmakers took a post-election trip to a luxurious Caribbean resort that may have breached House ethics rules because of corporate involvement.

Against a backdrop of corporate logos, two of the lawmakers thanked Citigroup, Pfizer, IBM and AT&T for their roles. The ethics committee approved the trip, but the rules bar lawmakers from taking trips lasting more than two days if corporations are underwriting or organizing any part of them.

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The corporate involvement was legal and openly acknowledged. It is the responsibility of lawmakers, not corporations, to ensure that ethics rules are not being violated, according to ethics experts.

Lawmakers on the trip initially said they did not realize corporations with interests in pending legislation paid for at least part of the trip. On forms filed with the committee, members of Congress listed the New York Carib News Foundation as the sole sponsor. The foundation is affiliated with a newspaper geared toward people from the Caribbean.

But photos and transcripts from the Nov. 6-9 conference show the corporate presence was clear. Some lawmakers even commented on it at the time.

While on the trip, Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) stated that the conference “can’t be done without the sponsors,” according to notes taken by Peter Flaherty, who was there for the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog. He said Payne thanked each corporate sponsor by name and asked for a round of applause at an opening dinner.

In December, a spokesman for Payne said the lawmaker was unaware of any corporate sponsors. But when told of Flaherty’s notes this month, Payne did not dispute them. He told The Hill he was thanking corporations for sponsoring the foundation, not the conference. When told of ethics rules against lawmakers participating in a trip where corporations have contributed money or services to a nonprofit for that trip, Payne said he did not know the “technicalities” of the new ethics rules.

Payne also said he never saw posters bearing the corporate logos on and above the podium where he and other speakers gave remarks.

Other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who attended the conference at the sun-swept, 10-acre Sonesta Maho Beach Resort in St. Martin included Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The trip has already caused headaches for Rangel, who faces an array of ethics allegations that have surfaced in recent months. Pictures of Rangel asleep on the beach appeared on the cover of the New York Post, along with a story highlighting the trip and allegations that it broke House rules.

The New York Carib News Foundation says it is a nonprofit organization with a mission to facilitate business and diplomatic relationships between the region and the United States. The House ethics committee approved the trip after receiving a required form from the foundation certifying that it was the sole sponsor.

The corporate sponsorships were lawful, said Meredith McGehee, an ethics expert at the Campaign Legal Center, but members’ praise for them raises a red flag about whether the foundation tried to skirt the rules that Democrats imposed.

The New York Carib News Foundation referred questions to a public-relations firm. That firm requested and received written questions but failed to answer them.

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

Corporations have no liability if members violate House ethics rules governing trips, according to McGehee, who said members are required to know the rules and avoid trips that violate them.

In 1995, the House placed more of a burden on members by requiring them to submit forms to the ethics panel certifying that the trip did not violate ethics rules.

{mospagebreak}“In the end, the buck stops there. Or in this case, the junket stops there,” McGehee said. “Members have to accept responsibility for what they’re doing. That’s the only way to ensure accountability — otherwise. they pass it off to the ethics committee, a nameless, faceless group of people that their constituents have no idea [about].”

Kilpatrick also thanked the trip’s sponsors at the end of her remarks at the conference, according to a recording by Flaherty, who taped parts of the event and had his recordings transcribed by an outside firm.

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“And to the sponsors, by the way, all of you, we couldn’t do this, be with you, help Karl, if you weren’t here with us, so we say thank you very much, you are so important,” she said. “To all of the sponsors, thank you very much.”

Karl Rodney heads the New York Carib News Foundation.

In December, Kilpatrick said she filed the appropriate paperwork with the ethics committee. In those filings, she listed the Carib News Foundation as the group’s sole sponsor. Kilpatrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Other executives and dignitaries also repeatedly thanked the “sponsors.”

Rodney started the first morning of the conference by thanking Citigroup, Pfizer, Macy’s, IBM, AT&T, the Verizon Foundation and American Airlines, as well as their executives there, by name, according to transcripts.

“Mike Flanigan — through the year his division has been supportive of the mission and the conference. And so we want to say thanks to Citi,” Rodney said.

Following those initial remarks, Flanigan, vice president and director of community relations for Citigroup, said this year’s conference is “significant for Citi” because it had donated enough to earn the distinction of “lead sponsor,” according to the transcript.

“For the first time we are the lead sponsor of this premier event,” Flanigan said. “But I would be remiss in not thanking the organizers and our hosts here at St. Martin.”

Just weeks after the trip, the Bush administration announced an injection of $20 billion for Citigroup and a plan to shoulder most of its potential losses on $306 billion of toxic assets. The administration used funds from the $700 billion bailout package approved by Congress in October.

Citigroup, Pfizer, Macy’s and IBM did not return calls for comment. American Airlines said it provided “in-kind” contributions of tickets for Carib News Foundation staffers, not members of Congress, although it would not say how much the tickets were worth. AT&T said only that it “supports” a number of Carib News Foundation activities, including the annual trip to a Caribbean resort.

Comments about the trip’s “sponsors” were often made in passing, as if a well-known fact.

For example, former New York Mayor City David Dinkins, who was there, recalled that corporate sponsorship for the annual event increased after more than 30 Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members attended.

“You know, one year we had something like 35 members of the Congressional Black Caucus here,” he said, according to the transcript provided by Flaherty. “I think it was 35, it was over 30 certainly, and that got the attention of a whole lot of people. It got the attention, I’m confident, of some sponsors who said, ‘Well, next year maybe we ought to up ours a bit,’ and they did.”

Besides Rangel, Payne and Kilpatrick, three other CBC lawmakers traveled to St. Martin, including: Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeVictims' relatives hold Capitol Hill meetings to push police reform Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations MORE (D-Texas), Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands). Only Jackson Lee said she paid her own way for the trip this year.

Rangel previously said the ethics committee cleared the trip, so he thought it was OK to participate.

He also said the onus was on the ethics committee to find out whether trip sponsors are making false statements to the panel in their forms.