By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005
The airfare to London and Scotland in 2000 for then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was charged to an American Express card issued to Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist at the center of a federal criminal and tax probe, according to two sources who know Abramoff's credit card account number and to a copy of a travel invoice displaying that number.
DeLay's expenses during the same trip for food, phone calls and other items at a golf course hotel in Scotland were billed to a different credit card also used on the trip by a second registered Washington lobbyist, Edwin A. Buckham, according to receipts documenting that portion of the trip.
House ethics rules bar lawmakers from accepting travel and related expenses from registered lobbyists. DeLay, who is now House majority leader, has said that his expenses on this trip were paid by a nonprofit organization and that the financial arrangements for it were proper. He has also said he had no way of knowing that any lobbyist might have financially supported the trip, either directly or through reimbursements to the nonprofit organization.
The documents obtained by The Washington Post, including receipts for his hotel stays in Scotland and London and billings for his golfing during the trip at the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland, substantiate for the first time that some of DeLay's expenses on the trip were billed to charge cards used by the two lobbyists. The invoice for DeLay's plane fare lists the name of what was then Abramoff's lobbying firm, Preston Gates & Ellis.
Multiple sources, including DeLay's then-chief of staff Susan Hirschmann, have confirmed that DeLay's congressional office was in direct contact with Preston Gates about the trip itinerary before DeLay's departure, to work out details of his travel. These contacts raise questions about DeLay's statement that he had no way of knowing about the financial and logistical support provided by Abramoff and his firm.
Yesterday, DeLay's lawyer, Bobby R. Burchfield, said that DeLay's staff was aware that Preston Gates was trying to arrange meetings and hotels for the trip but that DeLay was unaware of the "logistics" of bill payments, and that DeLay "continues to understand his expenses" were properly paid by the nonprofit organization, the National Center for Public Policy Research.
In 2000, Abramoff was a board member of the group. In a telephone interview yesterday, Hirschmann said the contacts between DeLay's office and persons at Preston Gates occurred because Abramoff "was a board member of the sponsoring organization." Hirschmann added: "We were assured that the National Center paid for the trip."
House rules do not exempt such nonprofit organization board members from the prohibition on lobbyist payments for travel. They also state that this prohibition "applies even where the lobbyist . . . will later be reimbursed for those expenses by a non-lobbyist client."
Burchfield did not dispute that Abramoff used his credit card to pay for DeLay's plane fare, but said in a statement that "the majority leader has always believed and continues to believe that all appropriate expenses for the U.K. trip were paid by the National Center for Public Policy Research." He said that "to the extent that Mr. Abramoff put the charges on his personal credit card, Mr. DeLay has no knowledge of this. But that would be consistent with Mr. Abramoff obtaining full reimbursement from the National Center."
He said further that, in his view, Abramoff's participation on this trip as a board member meant he was permitted to pay for some of the expenses, subject to reimbursement, and that numerous court decisions recognize that different rules may be applicable to the same person acting in different capacities.
Andrew Blum, a publicist for Abramoff's lawyer and spokesman for Abramoff, did not respond to questions relating to the use of Abramoff's credit card for DeLay's plane fare. But he said in a statement yesterday that it was the National Center that "sponsored" the trip, "not Jack Abramoff."
Blum said that DeLay was "one of the center's honored guests on this trip" and that Abramoff "is being singled out for doing what is commonly done by lobbyists -- taking trips with members of Congress and their staff so that they can learn about issues that impact the Congress and government policy." The center's ability to sponsor "this type of educational trip, using contributor funds, is both legal and proper," Blum said.
DeLay was admonished three times last year by the House ethics committee for infringing rules governing lawmakers' activities and their contacts with registered lobbyists. House ethics rules bar the payment by lobbyists for any lawmaker's travel-connected entertainment and recreational activities costing more than $50; they also require that lawmakers accurately report the sponsor of their trips and the full cost.
In an article last month about the same trip by DeLay, The Post reported that an Indian tribe and a gambling services company made donations to the National Center for Public Policy Research that covered most of the expenses declared by participants at that time. The article also said these payments were made two months before DeLay voted against legislation opposed by the tribe and the company. DeLay has said the vote was unrelated to the payments.
The article also reported that Abramoff submitted an expense voucher to Preston Gates seeking a reimbursement of $12,789.73 to cover expenses for meals, hotels and transportation during the London and Scotland trip incurred by DeLay; his wife, Christine; and his two aides.
The new receipts add more detail about these expenses, make clear that the total expenses for all of the participants were at least $50,000 more than was previously known, and connect Abramoff directly to the payment of some charges.
For DeLay, the 10-day trip began on May 25 with a flight to London from Dulles airport and ended on June 3 with a return trip from Europe via Newark and ending in Houston. In between, his itinerary called for stops in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews, in Scotland. DeLay said the purpose of the trip was to hold meetings with "Conservative leaders" in Britain and Scotland, including Margaret Thatcher. The former prime minister's office has confirmed that such a meeting occurred.
DeLay's two aides, Tony Rudy and Susan Hirschmann, had an overlapping itinerary; Rudy participated from May 29 to June 3, and Hirschmann participated from May 22 to June 2. The spouses of Rudy and Buckham also were present.
The travel receipts do not make clear how the expenses for the entire trip -- which involved at least 10 people and which two sources said exceeded $120,000 -- were paid. One source familiar with the billings said yesterday that the National Center reimbursed Abramoff for the charges incurred by DeLay and his staff that were billed to Abramoff's credit card; but the receipts themselves do not indicate whether some of the charges incurred by Abramoff were ultimately reimbursed and, if so, by whom.
The receipts make clear that flights for DeLay and his wife were initially billed to Abramoff. The plane ticket for the husband of one of DeLay's aides -- David Hirschmann -- was billed to the same American Express card used for the DeLay tickets, according to a copy of the invoice.
Although Amy Ridenour, director of the National Center for Public Policy Research, has said she organized the trip, two other sources said that DeLay's round-trip business-class tickets on Continental Airlines and British Airways were booked by Preston Gates employees.
The itinerary and invoice for DeLay's trip, prepared by a travel service in Seattle, was sent by the service to Preston Gates on May 23, 2000, according to a copy of the invoice. That was two days before DeLay's departure. The invoice states that DeLay's business-class tickets on Continental Airlines and British Airways cost $6,938.70.
The records also indicate that the expenses associated with DeLay exceeded those that he declared in a signed statement to the House clerk on June 30, 2000. That form listed the purpose of the trip as "educational" and gave a tally of $28,106 in expenses for DeLay and his wife, or an average of $2,800 a day; it stated that all of these charges were paid by the National Center for Public Policy Research, which provided the data to DeLay.
Receipts from the golfing portion of the trip show that DeLay accumulated additional charges, which, according to fees set by the tour arranger, amounted to nearly $5,000 for each golfer and totaled in the tens of thousands of dollars for the entire group. Fees associated with playing golf are not listed on DeLay's travel disclosure form. Burchfield, DeLay's lawyer, said DeLay "personally paid for two rounds of golf and understands that the other two rounds of golf he played were included in his hotel package" and reimbursed by the National Center.
A copy of the $184 bill for the DeLays' expenses during the trip at a separate hotel in St. Andrews -- the Old Course Hotel Golf Resort & Spa -- states that those charges were paid by the same American Express credit card used on the trip by Buckham, the lobbyist, to pay for his own hotel room at the Glasgow Hilton. Buckham could not be reached by phone at home or his office and did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment. Burchfield said he cannot explain how this happened and did not know who owned this credit card; he also said DeLay was unaware of this fact.
Buckham, a former chief of staff to DeLay, was at the time a registered lobbyist for AT&T, Enron Corp., and the Nuclear Energy Institute. DeLay's wife was employed, at the time of the trip, by Buckham's lobbying firm, the Alexander Strategy Group, and was receiving a salary from it, according to DeLay's personal financial disclosure statement for that year, on file with the House clerk.
Abramoff, at the time of the trip, represented eLottery Inc. , a gambling services company that opposed the Internet gambling bill pending before the House. Preston Gates registered as a lobbyist for eLottery on June 2, 2000, one day before the trip ended; later in the year, Abramoff registered as a lobbyist for other clients who opposed the bill, including several Indian tribes. The federal probe is looking into his handling of his tribal clients and the large fees he was paid.
Hirschmann and her husband ultimately accumulated charges of 2,073 British pounds, or about $3,109 at the prevailing exchange rate for four nights in their "superior" room at the London Four Seasons Hotel. Those charges included $129 at the hotel lounge, $75 from the room bar, $34 from the gift shop, and $422 for chauffeured cars, according to a copy of their hotel bill. Hirschmann said one car was used to reach the meeting with Thatcher.
At least one of the Hirschmanns also played golf at St. Andrews. Susan Hirschmann is now a lobbyist at the Washington firm of Williams & Jensen; the firm's Web site contains a published claim that DeLay and other House Republican leaders are in frequent contact with her. As a staff member at the time of the trip, she would have been covered by the same ethics rules that apply to DeLay and other House members. Rudy, her staff colleague at the time, now works for Buckham's lobbying firm.
DeLay and his wife, for their part, stayed for four nights in a "conservatory" room at the same hotel in London as Hirschmann, accumulating charges of roughly $790 a night for rooms that included a glass-enclosed porch overlooking London's Park Lane, according to a copy of the bill for their stay and the Web site of the hotel.
They also ran up hotel charges of $145 for room service, $13 for a valet pressing and $302 for a private car from Heathrow airport, the bill states. Their room bill also lists a charge of $434 for six theater tickets, but Burchfield said the DeLays do not recall attending any plays in London. He said if the hotel charges were being "picked up" by a representative of the National Center, "they would not necessarily have seen the hotel bill."
DeLay, Burchfield said, "does not know how the logistics . . . [of the bill payments for the trip] were being effectuated."
House ethics rules contain detailed provisions barring the acceptance of any travel funds from private sources if doing so would "create the appearance of using public office for private gain." They also obligate lawmakers to "make inquiry on the source of the funds that will be used to pay" for any travel ostensibly financed by a nonprofit organization -- to rule out the acceptance of reimbursements that come from one organization when a trip is "in fact organized and conducted by someone else."
Trips outside the United States are also not supposed to exceed a week in length out of concern, the rules state, for "the public perception that such trips often may amount to paid vacations for the Member and his family at the expense of special interest groups." Research editor Lucy Shackelford and researchers Alice Crites and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.