Ethics panel says Rep. Owens accepted ‘improper’ travel expenses, closes two cases

November 15, 2013

The House ethics committee has closed investigations into two members of Congress, saying it found insufficient evidence that their privately sponsored trips to Taiwan violated House rules.

The committee did find that one of the members -- Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) -- accepted "improper" travel expenses, because his trip was planned in part by a lobbying firm tied to the Taiwanese government. Lobbyists are not allowed to plan such trips.

Owens previously reimbursed the expenses, after the firm's role was questioned, which the ethics committee says allows it to close the case.

Owens and Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) traveled to Taiwan in 2011 on a trip paid for by the Chinese Culture University (CCU), a private sponsor. But the trip had previously been planned under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA), a government program that allows for financing of exchanges between foreign and U.S. leaders and experts.

The ethics committee pre-approved the trips with the knowledge that they were paid for by CCU, but not that they had been previously planned by MECEA. House rules dictate that a private sponsor must be involved in the planning of a trip -- not simply paying for it.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent ethics panel that refers cases to the official committee, has suggested the Taiwanese government planned and organized the trips rather than CCU.

The committee said it was not able to gather enough information about whether CCU's involvement was more than "money-only," because it has no jurisdiction to compel testimony from foreign agents, such information cannot be obtained, and the cases will be closed.

"The presently-available evidence is inconclusive as to whether CCU was a proper sponsor for the trips," the committee said in its ruling.

In the case of Owens, though, a New York lobbying firm connected to the Taiwanese government, Park Strategies LLC, was also involved in the trip. Under House rules, such groups are only supposed to play minimal roles in privately sponsored trips.

The committee found wrongdoing in that Park Strategies "reduced its involvement in the trip" after it became privately sponsored, "but not sufficiently" to comply with the rules.

"Representative Owens should have known that the trip was not a proper privately-sponsored trip because of the lobbying firm's continued involvement, which the Committee was unaware of," the committee wrote. "For this reason, the payments by CCU for Representative Owens' travel expenses were improper."

After questions about Park Strategies' role became public, Owens personally paid back the cost of the trip. Citing that payment, the committee said it will close the case.

Owens emphasized in a statement that his trip was meant to woo a high-tech company to open a facility in New York.

"I am pleased this matter has been closed unanimously," Owens said. "As I've said all along, I believe my office supplied the committee with all necessary information prior to taking the trip."

Updated at 3:45 p.m.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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