Informal Advice on Trips Cited

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

An ethics lawyer at the firm that employed lobbyist Jack Abramoff advised him in early 1996 that paying lawmakers' travel expenses and later accepting reimbursement for them was acceptable under House rules at the time, according to copies of the firm's internal e-mails.

The advice evidently encouraged Abramoff to pay for travel by then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and other lawmakers with his personal credit card over the next few years, according to officials of the Seattle-based law and lobbying firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, officials there said.

Tim L. Peckinpaugh, author of several e-mails on the subject, wrote at the time that he believed the practice was acceptable under an interpretation of House rules provided on the telephone by two staff members for the House ethics committee.

The alleged advice -- which differs from a written statement to House members from the ethics committee chairman and a ranking member in late 1995 -- is relevant to a controversy over trips taken by DeLay, other lawmakers and staff aides in 1996, 1997 and 1998 to the Northern Marianas Islands. Some of the travel was directly paid by Abramoff and reimbursed later by his client, the island government.

Until now, DeLay has not said payments by lobbyists for his expenses to overseas destinations were legal. He has said he had no idea that his expenses were paid by lobbyists, even though the lobbyists who picked up the tab for one trip -- to London and Scotland in 2000 -- accompanied him.

Yesterday, however, he broadened his defense of the financial arrangements for lawmakers' travel, telling reporters on Capitol Hill that disclosure of the Preston Gates e-mails "just proves what we have been saying all along."

"As far as I am concerned," DeLay said, "we adhere to the House rules, we went on trips paid for by legitimate organizations. . . . Over the last 10 years, there have been thousands of trips taken, and it is quite obvious members went on these trips understanding that they were doing the right things and complying with the rules -- and in many cases . . . with the sanction or consultation with staff on the ethics committee."

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, said she did not believe the e-mails accurately reflected the policy of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. "It is an obvious conflict with the written policy at the time. The ban on lobbyists paying for travel was in existence in '97. There has been no change in the House rules. There is no way the ethics committee would have said that."

The Aug. 12 and Nov. 26, 1996, e-mails, first described in yesterday's editions of the New York Times, were made available to The Washington Post by a source who sought to depict payments by Preston Gates lobbyists such as Abramoff for travel by lawmakers as complying with House ethics rules, so long as the lobbyists were promptly reimbursed by their clients.

The source, who declined to be named to protect his business interests, displayed but did not provide copies of the e-mails. The source also allowed access only to portions of the e-mails, with some passages blacked out, explaining that those passages dealt with other matters.

The e-mails present a picture of House ethics rules considerably looser than the policy enunciated in a written memo issued to all House members on Dec. 7, 1995, by the ethics committee. That memo said "travel expenses may not be accepted from registered lobbyists or agents of foreign principals."

According to an official at Preston Gates, the issue of how to interpret this rule arose in the context of the firm's practice of "floating" or paying in advance for travel expenses to the Marianas that eventually were paid by the island government. Jonathan Blank, a managing partner of the firm's Washington office, said in a statement that when the firm asked the committee staff about the ethics of this arrangement, it was told this was "permissible if fully and promptly reimbursed."

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