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.
"What happened was airline tickets were sent to our offices," he said. "I was assured that they had been paid for entirely by the . . . government, and the government would pay for all of the lawmakers' expenses."
He also said that "if I did not inform Rep. Clyburn and Thompson of the funding situation, it was a mistake" that he now regrets.
Clyburn said in an interview yesterday that he responded to the letter of invitation and had no idea that Abramoff or Preston Gates paid at the outset. He said he and Thompson had a one-night stopover in Honolulu, stayed on the islands for two nights, met with the governor and his aides, and discussed workplace conditions with immigrant laborers.
Clyburn said that he never met Abramoff and that no legislative action resulted. "I played seven to eight holes of golf" during the trip, he said, adding that the rest of the Saipan course was flooded at the time. Thompson, through an aide, gave an identical account, but said he did not play golf.
One of the memos published on the Internet, a note to Abramoff from his secretary dated May 20, 1997, describes the cost of the two lawmakers' trips as $15,657, including about $5,000 apiece in airfare and $227 for hotel rooms. Another memo to Abramoff, dated May 6, 1997, describes expenses for a separate Marianas trip involving Rudy and Buckham from Dec. 4 to Dec. 12, 1996. It shows they were accompanied by Abramoff and lists Buckham's hotel bill as $2,028. It also shows Abramoff paid two unspecified "upgrades" for Buckham and Rudy at $52 apiece, and covered a $387 cell phone bill, a $403 car rental and $468 for food.
Jennifer Senft Hamann, who wrote the memos, confirmed their authenticity. Hamann, who said she worked for Abramoff from December 1995 to October 1997, said Abramoff typically paid bills for such trips himself and then was reimbursed by Preston Gates, which in turn billed its clients. A source close to the incidents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed her account was correct in these instances.
The source also said the firm has discovered that most of the bills that Abramoff submitted for reimbursement were paid by the firm's headquarters in Seattle without being scrutinized for compliance with House ethics rules. Preston Gates managing partner Jonathan Blank said it was the firm's policy that all lobbyists were responsible for ensuring that congressional travel complied with House rules.
As congressional staff members, Buckham and Rudy were covered by the same House ban on a lobbyist's payment of travel expenses. Neither responded to an e-mail and telephone call requesting comment.
Dan Allen, a spokesman for DeLay, said "the office's understanding is that both of them traveled to [the Marianas] at the invitation of the commonwealth" and noted that House rules permit the acceptance of travel "paid by a governmental entity."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.