Lobbyists Help Fund Ripon Society Travel

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 23, 2006

Since 1964, the Ripon Society has tried to create a more inclusive GOP through "moderate, progressive policy formation," according to its official mission statement.

In recent years, however, a leading public watchdog group suggests, the Ripon Society has added an unofficial mission: travel agency to lobbyists.

Under president Richard S. Kessler, himself a prominent Washington lobbyist, people who represent corporate interests before Congress have "spent millions taking lawmakers to European capitals and U.S. resorts" under the auspices of the Ripon Society and the affiliated Ripon Educational Fund, the group Public Citizen charged in a new report.

The lure for the lobbyists who fund them is that they also take the trips, and gain "unbridled access" to influential lawmakers, said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

The practice is a way of "skirting congressional ethics rules that forbid lobbyists from paying for congressional travel," the report charges.

The activities the report detailed are not illegal, but ethics specialists say they do highlight the difficulty of proscribing certain common Washington practices, if lobbyists and lawmakers are determined to continue them.

Kessler declined to comment on the report but authorized former representative Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), who has been active in the Ripon Society, to speak on his behalf. He said, "We did what everybody else did," including getting legal counsel to approve all spending decisions, and obtaining letters of approval from the ethics committees of the House and Senate approving the trips.

In addition to his Ripon Society role, Kessler is president of Kessler & Associates. Among its clients, according to the most recent disclosure forms, are Pfizer Inc. and three other major drug companies; Altria Group Inc., the corporate parent of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA; and railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. Until the start of 2003, he served as finance chairman of the Ripon Education Fund. At the end of 2002, Frenzel said the society and the education fund became two organizations, and he and Kessler left the education fund board.

The Ripon Society has three levels of membership for corporate supporters: founder for $12,500, millennium club for $25,000 and chairman's club for $35,000.

According to Public Citizen, members of Congress have gone on trips costing the Ripon Society and Ripon Education Fund $742,000 since 2000. In addition, Kessler's clients have provided another $273,000 for congressional travel.

During 2003 and 2004, the 19 board members of the two Ripon organizations included 17 registered lobbyists. Ten of those were people who lobby for Kessler clients.

The Ripon Education Fund has provided members of Congress trips to conferences held in a number of European capitals, including London in 2003 and Budapest in 2004.

These trips have drawn notice before. On the August 2003 trip to London, the Education Fund picked up the tab for 20 members of Congress, including Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. The elected officials were accompanied by more than 100 lobbyists, The Washington Post reported at the time. These included representatives of American Express, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and General Motors Corp.

The lobbyists paid their own way, as well as a $9,500 corporate sponsor fee.

Ripon Society Chief Administrative Officer George McNeill said the organization has held three domestic conferences this year and last, in Key Biscayne, Palm Beach and Dallas. He said he could not estimate the number of lobbyists who attended, paying their own way. The society pays the costs for elected officials and congressional staff, and for academics and other experts addressing the conferences, McNeill said.

McNeill adamantly defended the conferences. "We are not skirting any ethics rules," he said, adding that the society has a "hard and fast," if unwritten, rule that "we don't allow any lobbying."

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