By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Members of Congress are rushing to amend their travel and campaign records, fearing that the controversy over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay will trigger an ethics war that will bring greater scrutiny to their own travel and official activities.
Some offices have sharply limited staff travel, and some members are not traveling at all because of the intense review they believe they will face in coming months.
Lawmakers are paying old restaurant bills, filing missing forms and correcting erroneous ones as journalists and political opponents comb through records and DeLay (R-Tex.) attempts to answer questions about travel financing and his past relationships with lobbyists.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wrote to the Federal Election Commission on April 15 to report that he had discovered that the Washington restaurant Signatures had not charged his credit card -- as he said he had directed -- for a 2003 fundraiser for 16 people that cost $1,846. The event was hosted by Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist and part-owner of the restaurant who is now under congressional and criminal investigation for his handling of millions of dollars in fees from Indian tribes. Abramoff was not at the event.
"I never thought about this event again until it was brought to my attention very recently that no payment or reimbursement for the event has ever appeared on our FEC report," Vitter wrote. He wrote to Signatures at the same time, directing the management to "charge my credit card today."
In another case, an aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had not reported a 2004 trip to South Korea until a Washington Post reporter asked her office about it. Eddie Charmaine Manansala, Pelosi's special assistant on East Asian affairs, filed a disclosure form for the $9,087 trip a few hours after the newspaper's inquiry and sent a note to the ethics committee saying, "I did not know I was supposed to file these forms and I apologize for its lateness."
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) even asked the ethics committee to investigate him after a reporter for the newspaper Roll Call pointed out that a travel disclosure form from 2001 listed the lobbying firm Rooney Group International as paying for a $1,782 trip to Boston, which would be a violation of House rules.
Abercrombie's aides said they have since determined that the lobbying firm's expenses were reimbursed by the nonprofit group that Abercrombie addressed on the trip, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. House rules state that the prohibition against lobbyists paying for members' travel applies "even where the lobbyist . . . will later be reimbursed for those expenses by a non-lobbyist client."
DeLay's staff said he will turn over records -- including letters showing how his travel was arranged -- to the ethics committee, which is not currently functioning because of a dispute between the parties. The committee admonished DeLay three times last year for what it concluded was inappropriate official conduct.
House Republican aides said yesterday for the first time that they believe they will have to reverse or modify the ethics rules that were passed on a party-line vote in January and have caused Democrats to refuse to allow the ethics committee to organize. Republican leaders had been trying to avoid a new floor vote over the rules, but aides said they now are convinced that they need to get the committee going so that Democrats cannot accuse them of squelching an investigation of DeLay.
As reports about DeLay's travel with lobbyists mount, Republican leaders are attempting to shift attention to questionable activities of Democrats.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) warned on Sean Hannity's radio show last week that there are "four or five cases out there dealing with top-level Democrats," whom he did not name.
The threats and maneuvering mark the end of an ethics truce that has existed between the parties since the battles that led to the downfall of House speakers Jim Wright (D-Tex.) in 1989 and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1998. Since then, the parties have largely refrained from filing charges against each other out of a calculation that they both lose in such contests.
Jan W. Baran, a Republican lobbying and campaign finance expert at Wiley, Rein & Fielding, says that in reaction to DeLay's woes, none of his clients who are members of Congress are traveling at the expense of private interests these days.
"My overall impression about members is that they're not taking any trips for the time being," he said. Baran said he also has been e-mailing handouts to clients who want to be reminded of the rules.
Kenneth A. Gross of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom said he is "getting more calls asking what is the letter of the law."
"There will be fewer sponsored trips," he predicted. "There's going to be more of a reluctance to fund some of these trips, and those that happen will be less extravagant."
The spate of new filings raises questions about the completeness and accuracy of congressional travel records, which are based on the honor system.
An aide to DeLay sent letters to the House clerk and the ethics committee on March 22 reporting that he "discovered today that I inadvertently neglected to file" two travel reports for conferences in December and January with a total reported cost of $1,500.
Yesterday, an aide to Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Tex.) filed a report saying she had not reported an $800 trip to Austin in January "due to pressing House business."
Two Republican freshmen -- Reps. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.) and Lynn A. Westmoreland (Ga.) -- addressed a letter to Pelosi saying she "may have violated House Rules regarding privately sponsored travel" with a trip to Puerto Rico in 2001. Pelosi's aides supplied canceled checks that they said showed the trip was paid for by a nonprofit group, not a lobbyist.
The brouhaha arose because Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), who had accompanied Pelosi on the trip, had listed the lobbyist as the sponsor -- in error, she said.
The Legislative Resource Center, a green-carpeted reading room in the Cannon House Office Building where travel records are filed in fat black binders, is usually quiet. But suddenly it is abuzz as lawmakers update their filings and journalists and political operatives troll through the three-hole-punched disclosures.
"Every time we go down there to check on something or refile something, we have noticed someone is going through our file," said Jason C. Roe, chief of staff to Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). "Some people are just resigned that everyone is going to get kicked in the teeth while this goes on."
Feeney had listed a lobbying firm as the sponsor of a 2003 trip to Florida. But his staff said that a nonprofit group had paid, after the Washington Times asked about the filing. Roe apologized for the "clerical error."
Today, the House ethics committee plans to hold an hour-long "ethics briefing" for members and staff as a primer on ethics rules, including rules on gifts, travel, campaign activity and outside employment.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.