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."
According to the second of the e-mails, however, the ethics committee staff member noted that "the committee has never aired the issue specifically and that it was always subject to clarification and change. . . . As a matter of caution, it might be advisable for the lobbying firm to avoid paying for travel costs to be reimbursed later." The staffer also described this approach as better "for all parties concerned," according to Peckinpaugh's account.
In response to this advice, Blank said, "we encouraged that result."
A more detailed ethics committee memo published in early 2000 specifically banned such temporary payments.
Abramoff was, according to Preston Gates, always reimbursed by the firm's client, the islands' government, which was allowed under House rules to pay for the trips. The island government was seeking at the time to fend off congressional legislation imposing U.S. work and minimum wage rules.
Abramoff declined through a spokesman to make any comment on the e-mails yesterday.
One of those cited by Peckinpaugh as the source of the advice was Ellen L. Weintraub, then a committee lawyer and now a member of the Federal Election Commission. She said yesterday she has no reason to doubt that the conversation occurred, but cannot specifically recall providing this advice.
"I could have" said it was allowable, she added, but noted that under long-standing committee practices, advice given on the telephone by staff can only be considered a "best guess" about how the rules should be interpreted. If Preston Gates had wanted a "definitive ruling, it would have to be in writing," she said.
The second person cited in the e-mails, committee lawyer John Vargo, recently left the staff after being told it was unlikely he would be reappointed. He declined to be quoted for this article, explaining that he still felt bound by the committee's confidentiality rules.
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.