Ethics rules don't end corporate access to lawmakers
Using data provided by LegiStorm, Times reporters culled through more than 1,100 travel disclosures and found that while privately financed travel is down since the imposition of ethics rules limiting them, lobbyists and industry seem to be exploiting loopholes in the rules to ensure continued access to lawmakers.
The Times also found that some lobbying organizations and companies finance congressional travel indirectly by giving money to nonprofits - a trend which LegiStorm has reported on before.
For example, when Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI) and his wife in 2009 traveled to Liechtenstein and Germany on the dime of several European companies, many of which lobby in the U.S., they did so with the approval of the House ethics committee. These sponsors paid for Sensenbrenner and his wife to visit a vineyard and a castle, and to spend an afternoon at an Alpine ski resort. The trip was organized by the International Management and Development Institute, a nonprofit organization. On his disclosure form, Sensenbrenner lists the purpose of the travel as meetings "with counterparts in German Bundestag about Financial Crisis/Ministry of Justice," as well as meetings with U.S. embassy officials. Since the sponsoring organization does not retain a lobbyist directly, even though its president is himself a registered lobbyist, rules limiting lobbyist-sponsored travel did not apply. Several big companies had opportunities to meet with lawmakers throughout the weeklong trip.
When members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended a conference at a casino resort in 2008, their travel disclosures to the ethics committee did not hint at any ties to business or corporate sponsors. But the copy of the agenda that was handed out to conference attendees differs from the one filed with the ethics committee in that each event of the conference lists a corporate sponsor: a skeet shooting clinic, for example, was sponsored by Wal-Mart. A lobbyist and organizer of the conference says that the trip was within ethics rules because the companies involved did not directly pay for any events, but instead contributed to the CBC's nonprofit, the Political Education and Leadership Institute. That money was then used to pay for hotels and lodging costs.
And when Omar Medical Supplies wanted to build a new factory for manufacturing latex gloves in China, company president Omar Wilson called on an old friend - Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL). Wilson would have had little trouble getting in touch with Davis - in addition to a years-long friendship between the two, Wilson had also hired Davis' former chief of staff as a lobbyist for his company. Omar Medical Supplies paid for Davis to travel to China to help with negotiations.
Since companies that employ lobbyists cannot sponsor trips lasting longer than two nights, Davis had to complete his negotiations with Chinese officials in a hurry. If business was rushed, however, it doesn't seem to have made a negative impression on the decision-makers - Omar Medical Supplies got its factory. As Wilson told The Times, "It was good to have a United States congressman speaking highly of you." According to The Times, however, Wilson still may have run afoul of ethics rules by traveling to China with the Omar Medical Supplies lobbyist.