A delegation of Republican House members including Majority Leader Tom DeLay accepted an expense-paid trip to South Korea in 2001 from a registered foreign agent despite House rules that bar the acceptance of travel expenses from foreign agents, according to government documents and travel reports filed by the House members.
Justice Department documents show that the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a business-financed entity created with help from a lobbying firm headed by DeLay's former chief of staff, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act on Aug. 22, 2001. DeLay; his wife, Christine; and two other Republican lawmakers departed on a trip financed by the group on Aug. 25 of that year.
The exchange group in late 2003 hosted three Democratic House members and another Republican on a similar trip. It spent at least $106,921 to finance the three-day trip in 2001 from Washington to Seoul by the Republicans, which DeLay (Tex.) and accompanying staff assistants described at the time as having an "educational" purpose.
DeLay's aides said yesterday that the congressman did not learn of the group's registration until this week. "There's no way we could have known, and they didn't inform us of the fact that their status changed," said DeLay's communications director, Dan Allen.
The Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives on Gifts and Travel state that "a Member, officer or employee may not accept travel expenses from 'a registered lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal.' "
Jan W. Baran, a former general counsel for the Republican National Committee, said that although he was uncertain whether this trip violated the rules, "it's a problem" likely to trigger an investigation by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, known as the ethics committee. DeLay was admonished three times last year by the ethics committee.
An aide to DeLay who asked not to be named said DeLay staff members had general discussions about the trip with the ethics committee before leaving and received verbal approval.
A veteran House official familiar with the case, who declined to be named because of DeLay's involvement, said verbal approval is not granted by the committee on such matters.
Committee staff workers provide advice to lawmakers and their aides, but it does not go beyond what could be read in a manual, the official said. "The only way you can get, quote, approval from the ethics committee that is good for anything other than your own comfort level is to write a letter asking for approval, and to get a letter back," the official said. "If you do that, you're home free. If you don't, you're always running the risk you'll end up in a bind."
No letter was sent by DeLay to the committee, DeLay's aides said.
DeLay was accompanied to Seoul by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ander Crenshaw, both Florida Republicans. A spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen, Alex Cruz, said she did not know the group had registered as a foreign agent.
"My boss was never told of this," Cruz said. A spokesman for Crenshaw, Kenneth Lundberg, said, "When the trip was brought [to us], we did an internal vetting of it, and that revealed no problems, no issues."
Lundberg said Crenshaw does not typically seek ethics committee approval for travel with other legislators and did not in this case.
The purpose of the trip is spelled out in documents filed with the Justice Department by the Alexander Strategy Group, a firm created by former DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham that boasts dozens of large corporations and trade associations among its clients. Buckham is close to DeLay, and associates of both men say that DeLay agrees to meetings with corporate officials on Buckham's recommendation.