According to the documents, the objective of the trip was to help define the corporate executive who bankrolls the exchange group, Chairman Seung Youn Kim of the Hanwha Group, as "the leading Korean business statesman in U.S.-Korea relations." The Hanwha Group is one of South Korea's top 10 holding companies.
The documents show that arranging the lawmakers' trip is just one of numerous steps the lobbyists promised to take for Kim. Others included arranging a meeting with President Bush and lawmakers in Washington.
An "illustrative schedule" dated February 2001 for the August 2001 trip lists proposed meetings with the U.S. ambassador, Korean legislators and business executives, but includes "free time for shopping, touring, golf" on each of the three days in Seoul.
It could not be determined yesterday whether the lawmakers actually followed that schedule. DeLay said on the report, filed Sept. 26, 2001, that his expenses for the trip were $13,000 for transportation, $330 for lodging, $150 for meals and $20 for "other." An identical accounting of expenses was provided for his wife. Under "sponsor," DeLay wrote, "the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council."
Registration under the act constitutes a declaration that the group acts as an agent of a foreign government or political party. A statement dated Tuesday issued by the Korean-U.S. Exchange Council, and signed by Edward Stewart, who works for Buckham's firm, said that "members were advised that a representative of the House Committee of [sic] Official Standards and Conduct approved the trip verbally." The group said that it registered as a foreign agent "after the Committee representative approved the trip."
"Members were not told that the organization had registered," the statement said, adding that the group was "unaware that this could change the status of the trip."
Several other lawmakers and aides, including an adviser on Asian affairs to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also accepted trips from the group as recently as last year, according to congressional disclosure forms. Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said that "there was no reason to think this group was anything other than a charity."
House Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) traveled to Seoul at the group's expense from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, 2003, according to a database compiled by researchers at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Attempts to reach aides for all four were unsuccessful last night.
The cost of DeLay's trip was the fourth largest for any single trip by lawmakers from Jan. 1, 2000, to September 2004, according to the Medill tally.
Baran, who now specializes in government ethics law, said the ethics committee might distinguish between the actions of a lawmaker who traveled without knowing about the foreign agent registration and one who did know. "If a member acting in good faith and without knowledge [travels], that does not in and of itself create a violation, but it does create a problem," he said.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.