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Free trips to Turkey for the US Congress

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  • Free trips to Turkey for the US Congress

    Lawmakers still getting free trips overseas
    By: Samuel Loewenberg

    Dec 17, 2007 07:09 PM EST

    The new congressional ethics rules have curbed corporate-sponsored travel for lawmakers — but that doesn’t mean they’ve been grounded.

    Groups with foreign policy agendas are actively flying congressmen and their aides around the world, as does the high-tech industry, ideological groups and those seeking federal funds, such as universities and municipalities.

    Organizations promoting Israel, China and Turkey were among the biggest trip sponsors this year.

    The three nations have been mired in human rights and trade controversies under debate in Congress.

    In the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, the new rules are meant to ban trips like the Scotland golf junket that sent former Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney to prison.

    While the new rules prohibit lobbyist involvement in congressional trips, and even add criminal penalties, it is clear the congressional delegations are still exposed to plenty of advocacy on their fact-finding missions.

    After all, the very purpose of such trips is to sway congressional decision makers’ thinking, say ethics experts.

    So what has changed?

    A Politico analysis using data since 2001 from Legistorm found that the pattern of trips altered dramatically this year, with corporate trips stopping almost completely.

    Trips dropped for the year as a whole despite the fact the Senate rules only kicked in at the beginning of this month, while the House rules went into effect in March.

    “It is hard to say which is more a part of their thinking: that to invite members on a trip like this would cause negative publicity, or that they just don’t know what the rules are,” said William Canfield III, a partner at Williams & Jensen who advises clients on ethics issues.

    “It could be that what they are trying to do is lay low for a while and see how the trips are accepted or whatever, and make a decision when the dust has settled.”

    Privately sponsored travel is not totally banned — the rules allow some one-day trips.

    But in practice, this has meant that old stalwarts of election cycles past, such as Microsoft Corp., General Atomics and the Association of American Railroads, have virtually stopped hosting “fact-finding missions” in faraway cities like Los Angeles, Rome and Palm Beach, Fla.


    One of the biggest sponsors of trips is the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, which, despite its name, is not a social networking group.

    Sixteen lawmakers and congressional staffers flew to Istanbul and Ankara on two different trips this year, courtesy of the USAFMC’s “Congressional Study Group on Turkey,” a 2005 creation whose funding includes pro-Turkey interest groups and companies that do business with the country.

    Turkey has been in the spotlight this year as it fought a possible congressional recognition of the genocide in Armenia.

    The Turkish government mounted a full-court lobbying press against the resolution, which ultimately was defeated.

    The nation is also involved in sensitive negotiations over whether it can wage its military battle against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) over the border in Iraq.

    “There was not a meeting we had where those two things did not come up,” said Marilyn J. Dillihay, the legislative director for Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.).

    “For somebody who is a new staffer like me, it was a fabulous immersion in those kinds of issues,” she said, especially because the issues “were at the forefront this year.”

    The week-long trips occurred in May and August, just when Congress was debating the Armenian resolution.

    The new ethics rules say that such trips cannot be planned or arranged by a lobbyist.

    That doesn’t mean that lobbyists cannot meet the delegations when they arrive.

    While the sponsors are not allowed to explicitly tell lawmakers how to vote on a piece of legislation, there is nothing to prohibit them from making the case for their position.

    The talk about the Armenian genocide resolution made a big impact on her, Dillihay said.

    What she learned, she said, was that “what seemed like a nonbinding, whoop-de-do resolution, had huge resonance somewhere else.”

    “The more I have learned about it, the less I thought it was the proper thing to do,” she said.

    The Capitol Hill delegation’s agenda included meetings with Turkey’s prime minister and the ministers of foreign affairs and economic affairs.

    The trips were entirely planned by the USAFMC, according to the group’s executive director, Peter Weichlein, who responded to written questions.

    Page 2
    “No representatives of the Turkish government have any influence over any aspect of our trips, programming and funding,” he wrote.

    During the August trip, the travelers stopped at the home of former U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz, a longtime lobbyist for Turkey.

    Solarz spoke to the group about the Armenian resolution and the PKK issue, Dillihay said.

    “He expressed a sense of what kind of effect it could have on Turkey and U.S.-Turkish relationships,” Dillihay said.

    “If it was lobbying, it was soft as it could be. It was just like somebody hosting you in their house for lunch,” she said.

    The purpose of the meeting with Solarz was refreshments and a discussion of history, Weichlein wrote.

    Cohen, who also went on a trip to Turkey, opposes the Armenian resolution, citing Turkey’s strategic importance in the Middle East region and support for the U.S. in the Iraq war.

    Bob Livingston, the former congressman whose firm took the lead in lobbying for Turkey on the Armenia issue, told Politico he was not involved in planning the congressional delegation’s visit.

    “I had absolutely nothing to do with this trip,” he said.

    Livingston said Solarz was working with his firm to lobby for Turkey at the time he met with the congressional delegation, and that he himself is on the USAFMC board.

    In fact, even if Solarz did lobby the group, he would have been in compliance, said Jan Baran, an ethics expert at Wiley Rein.

    Baran, who has done work for USAFMC on other matters, said the rules prohibit a lobbyist from traveling with a congressional delegation, not from meeting with one once it has arrived.

    The ethics rules definition of “a trip” as only applying to the physical movement between locations “is fundamentally absurd,” Baran said.


    The new rules are not always quite what they seem.

    One of the top sponsors of congressional trips for this year and years past is the foundation run by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which calls itself “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

    The American Israel Education Foundation has funded 50 trips this year, at a cost of $633,560.

    The foundation, which has no website of its own, is identified on as “AIPAC’s educational foundation.”

    The new ethics rules prohibit travel for more than a one-day trip from an organization that “retains or employs a lobbyist.”

    So, while AIPAC can’t finance a week-long trip, its educational arm can.

    Still, the group has to be careful to comply with the law. The education arm doesn’t receive funding from AIPAC and the group’s lobbyists are not involved with the trips, said Josh Block, an AIPAC spokesman.

    The purpose of the trips is “to help members of Congress understand the issues that are at play over there,” Block said.

    The Israeli government in recent years has made some controversial decisions, including the expansion of settlements, the invasion of Lebanon and the bombing of a site in Syria.

    Congress voted to give Israel $2.4 billion in military aid for 2008.

    Meanwhile, in Palm Beach, the conservative fundraising group Club for Growth hosted 10 members of Congress last March for a sun- and fun-filled weekend of fiscal responsibility.

    Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.) spoke on a panel about health care reform during the trip.

    “I don’t spend any time at those events soliciting contributions; that would be tacky because I would be competing with [the organization],” Shadegg said.


    Corporations aren’t totally out of the game.

    Microsoft spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said the company continues to meet regularly at its suburban Seattle headquarters with lawmakers (assuming they were already in the area, anyway, so Microsoft didn’t buy their airline ticket) and with presidential candidates, such as Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

    “It’s a hubbub of activity 12 months a year,” Terzano said.
    General Antranik (1865-1927): “I am not a nationalist. I recognize only one nation, the nation of the oppressed.”