Democrats' Travel Costs Linked to Lobbyist

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff paid at least a portion of the expenses for two Democratic members of Congress and two staff members to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) during a pair of trips in the mid-1990s to the Northern Mariana Islands, according to a former Abramoff secretary and travel records published on the Internet yesterday.

The payments represent two new instances in which lawmakers and staff members on overseas trips had their expenses initially covered by a registered lobbyist despite a blanket ban in congressional ethics rules on direct payments by lobbyists for travel-related expenses.

The two congressmen were James E. Clyburn (S.C.), now vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Bennie Thompson (Miss.), now the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. The aides to DeLay were Edwin A. Buckham, now a lobbyist for the Alexander Strategy Group, and Tony Rudy, now a member of Buckham's lobbying firm.

In these instances, Abramoff was reimbursed by his law firm, Preston Gates Ellis. The island government, which had hired the law firm, eventually paid it back for the expenses incurred by Abramoff, according to a source close to the incidents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. House ethics rules contain no exemption for payments by lobbyists that are later reimbursed by others.

Abramoff's credit card was also used to pay travel expenses related to a trip to London and Scotland by DeLay in late May and early June of 2000, according to a separate set of records disclosed by The Washington Post last month. Sources have said he was reimbursed in that instance by a nonprofit organization, which in turn had some of its expenses for that trip covered by gambling interests.

All three lawmakers have said in response to the disclosures that they had no way of knowing that Abramoff's credit card was being used to pay for the trips. They said they believed that the charges were being incurred by nonprofit groups, as House rules permit.

Andrew Blum, Abramoff's spokesman, declined to comment yesterday but has said that lobbyists traditionally travel with lawmakers on educational trips and that Abramoff is being singled out for actions that he called proper and common in Washington.

The travel receipts for the trips to the Marianas -- obtained by the Associated Press and published on its Web site -- and interviews tell a more complicated story. They suggest that the nonprofit organization listed by the two congressmen as their sponsor did not pay for the trip.

Abramoff is now at the center of a federal criminal and tax investigation. In 1997, he was the chief Washington lobbyist for the islands, a U.S. protectorate in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii. In 2001, he also registered as a lobbyist for the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association, a major trade group based on one of the islands.

The island groups had several interests before Congress in 1997: They wanted to thwart a bill restricting the flow of Asian immigrants to the islands, where some lawmakers said they were mistreated in sweatshops. Business interests also wanted to ensure that they continued to be exempt from paying minimum wages. In total, Abramoff and Preston Gates were paid about $4.5 million to lobby for those clients between 1996 and 2000, according to the law firm.

Clyburn and Thompson were invited to the islands by the National Security Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit group, in a letter dated Dec. 17, 1996, according to a copy Clyburn supplied. The letter said the trip would "not involve any cost to the U.S. government."

Greg Hilton, who directed the group at the time, said he understood at the outset that the expenses would be covered by "the private sector" -- meaning island businesses. "As we came closer to the trip, a check had not arrived," he said in a written statement. But Hilton said he received a call from Preston Gates, which depicted itself as legal counsel for the island government.

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