Lobbyists for China, South Korea and Panama each contacted Angela Ellard, a trade expert for Republicans on the House’s tax-writing committee, in the years after she took trips to those countries, records show.
“This was official and substantive government work that, among other things, helped lead to the successful passage of trade agreements with both Panama and South Korea,” committee spokeswoman Sarah Swinehart said in an e-mailed statement.
In August 2010, about a dozen staffers from both parties set out for a trip to China, organized by the U.S.-Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington with the mission of promoting dialogue between Washington and Beijing.
Joining them on the trip was a lobbyist for United Parcel Service, which is a corporate member of the foundation. “We were on that trip because we have business in China and we are trying to grow our business there,” said UPS spokeswoman Kara Ross. “It helps because you make connections when you’re over there meeting with people.”
Although lobbyists for U.S. companies are banned from accompanying congressional aides on travel paid for by firms and other private interests, those rules are waived for cultural-exchange trips.
The traveling party checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Beijing. On the first day, the staffers held meetings with government officials, according to an itinerary of the trip provided by the foundation and interviews with several participants. That evening, the visitors attended a banquet hosted by the Chinese government, featuring local dishes and frequent toasts with shots of Moutai, a traditional Chinese liquor served in white porcelain bottles.
The next morning, the group visited the sites of two other corporate sponsors of the foundation: a Wal-Mart store and a Microsoft research facility. About 30 local Wal-Mart employees in uniform sang a song for the group and held a banner welcoming them to the store. After lunch, the group went to the Great Wall and received a “briefing on ancient Chinese defense work.”
Over the following days, the congressional staffers visited the Forbidden City and the ancient imperial palace in the center of Beijing. They toured the countryside, seeing ethnic-minority villages and an 18th-century pavilion, among other sites, and took a walk behind the largest waterfall in Asia.
In Shanghai, after meeting U.S. consulate and trade officials, the visitors took an evening boat tour along the Bund, a historic area of downtown. The next day, the group got a VIP tour of the Shanghai World Expo, bypassing lines of tourists to visit pavilions sponsored by different countries as well as Coca-Cola, which was a donor to the foundation, and General Motors. The next day, the group toured the historic Yu Yuan gardens and in the afternoon, saw “the development of Shanghai on Nanjing Road,” the city’s main shopping street.