Storm Tips: A sweetheart's gift leads to big questions about corporate-funded travel
Sifting through personal financial disclosures of congressional staffers, we stumbled upon one disclosure of gifts from an aide's girlfriend. That romantic gesture led us down a path of inquiry that raises questions about whether the new travel rules are followed scrupulously or have major loopholes.
This all started with our routine review of the financial disclosure of Jay Hulings, a legislative counsel for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). He revealed that his girlfriend, Elysia Petru, a former Miss San Antonio, had given him $675 in gifts in 2008. The gifts included a trip to Seattle and a video game console.
Our interest at first was merely amusement that a staffer might have to disclose gifts from a significant other. But our interest was piqued when we learned that Petru appears to work alongside Helen Milby, a heavy Democratic fundraiser, and that the two of them were organizers of a July 2008 fact-finding trip to Portland and Seattle - and more specifically to the campus of Microsoft, maker of the Xbox video game console - by congressional staff.
The trip was officially sponsored by an outfit called the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). ITIF considers itself a non-partisan "think tank." But the organization was founded by lobbyists for major technology companies. It produces reports but solicits donations from private companies by offering up access to members of Congress, their staff and administration officials - especially through these trips.
ITIF's honorary co-chairs are Reps. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) and Darrell Issa (D-Calif.). Neither disclose this affiliation on their own financial disclosures but ethics rules do not require them to because the positions are honorary. Former Reps. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) are co-chairs. Both are registered lobbyists.
The ITIF board is filled mostly with other officials from technology companies and organizations. They include registered lobbyists such as Robert Hoffman of Oracle and Catherine Novelli of Apple. But it also includes corporate officials and industry representatives who specialize in government affairs but apparently are not required to register as lobbyists. The lobbying disclosure laws allow for people who spend less than 20 percent of their time on lobbying to avoid disclosure.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Microsoft is a key player in the ITIF, having been a founder and having Rebecca Lenaburg, the associate general counsel who heads the government and industry affairs team for the company, on ITIF's board.
ITIF has sponsored two congressional staff trips in all. One was the one to Microsoft, as well as other Northwest companies. The second was a trip this year to Philadelphia which also featured a visit to Microsoft's School of the Future.
House and Senate resolutions passed in 2007 severely restrict privately funded trips that congressional officials may take if the sponsoring organization employs a lobbyist. The rules place tighter limits on trips longer than one night or one day. The Philadelphia trip was only one night so the rules are not quite as restrictive. For it to be proper, that trip would have to meet the following criteria:
- - The congressional staffers and members traveling not be accompanied by a registered lobbyist - including ITIF's own lobbyist board members - "on any segment" of the event
- - Not be organized by registered lobbyists - again, including ITIF's own board members - at least not involving any more than "de minimis" effort or expense
- - Not be sponsored, including indirectly via earmarked funds, by an organization employing any registered lobbyists
The 2008 Portland and Seattle trip was a three-day event and has the additional restriction:
On this last point, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation was required to file a travel certification form. On it, ITIF Executive Director Robert Atkinson represented "that the trip sponsor(s) has not accepted from any other source funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip."
The House ethics committee does not appear to have defined what it means to have funds directly or indirectly earmarked. But ITIF seems to have employed an interesting loophole if it hasn't crossed any legal lines. The trips themselves were to campuses of companies that would have been banned from sponsoring the trips directly. For example, the Pacific Northwest trip included visits to Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Corp.
The ITIF also used the trips as an opportunity to raise funds from companies. The pre-registration form that ITIF handed out to potential corporate participants emphasized that it was open to "current supporters of ITIF in 2008". The solicitation mentioned two levels of support: $25,000 as a "sustaining member" and $50,000 as an "executive council" member.
In both cases, access to congressional decision-makers on these trips was a central part of the pitch. The brochure also added that sustaining members received invitations to "events with key administration officials and Members of Congress" and "private quarterly donor working group meetings as scheduled with elected and/or administration officials to discuss current technology policy issues." Executive council members got additional benefits.
The trip solicitation for donor companies made no mention of the legal restrictions against lobbyist participation in travel with congressional staffers.
The ITIF trip has echoes of a controversial trip to the Caribbean that members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been taking for years. Last week, The Hill reported that a trip to the island of St. Maarten is the subject of an investigation by the House ethics committee. The investigation comes after the National Legal and Policy Center complained that the Black Caucus trip, while ostensibly funded by a foundation associated with the Carib News publication, appears to have been sponsored ultimately by corporate interests.
The House ethics committee has now said it is investigating whether the Caribbean trip violates House rules. Black Caucus members say they are furious that they are being singled out.
The ITIF and Carib News trips raise some pretty important questions about what it means to have corporate sponsorship. In ITIF's case, it's possible that the ethics committee might not view its corporate funders as trip sponsors because they receive some other benefits other than attendance on the trip.
If so, that would seem to provide a huge loophole to private interests looking for influence in Congress.
This post is part of our occasional series "Storm Tips," in which we highlight interesting items we stumble across in our raw records.