Passage to Africa With Williams Comes at a Price
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is asking corporate sponsors to pay as much as $40,000 apiece to underwrite his first official trip to Africa, a 19-day "trade and cultural exchange mission" with stops in South Africa, Ghana and Senegal.
In a January letter to prospective donors, the mayor said he hopes to assemble a delegation of 55 "leaders from business, industry, labor and the community" for the mission, which is scheduled for May 3 through May 21.
Highlights include accommodations at four- and five-star hotels, weekend visits to tourist attractions and a two-night side trip to a South African game park, where some in the delegation would stay in a "super luxury safari camp" with tents renting for up to $975 per person per night.
The letter offers two levels of corporate sponsorship: Those who contribute at least $40,000 would get to fly business class and would join the mayor for a meeting with the Senegalese president as well as a "highly privileged, private audience with Asantehene (Asante King) Otumfuo Osei Tutu II" in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Donors at the $25,000 level would get no highly privileged, private meetings and would have to fly coach.
As planned, tax money will not be used to pay for the trip. The mayor is asking corporate sponsors to underwrite the whole thing, an arrangement permitted under the city's donations policy. No one in the mayor's office would say yesterday what the trip is expected to cost or who has been invited.
In an interview, Williams (D) said the mission is "a major initiative to focus on improving our relationship with Africa." He compared it with his 2003 trip to Brussels, which was also underwritten by corporate sponsors.
That journey "was very successful," Williams said. "This would be the same kind of initiative. People are contributing to the trip . . . to relieve the taxpayers of that expense."
It was unclear yesterday, however, how many people are willing to contribute. Secretary of the District Patricia Ellwood, who is helping to organize the mission, said her office has seen "a good deal of interest" from prospective sponsors. "But some people only want to go to one country or they want to go to two countries" at reduced rates, she said, adding that the trip could be canceled or require a government subsidy if it fails to muster enough corporate support.
Ellwood said Williams has been urged for years to visit Africa, in part to pay homage to the deep connection to the continent felt by many in a city that is majority African American. "There are a lot of calls for help. There's the richness of culture. And there are a lot of business opportunities," Ellwood said. "So there are a lot of reasons to go."
However, the trip falls in the middle of Williams's final year in office, when he pledged that he would cut down on travel and devote himself to completing priority development projects at home. It also gives fresh ammunition to government watchdogs who have repeatedly criticized Williams for soliciting private donations for official travel.
"If you think the lobbying scandal on Capitol Hill stinks, you should look at the dearth of legislation or regulations we have in the District regarding the activities of lobbyists," said Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, a nonprofit organization that monitors District government. "Especially where the mayor's trips are involved, they literally go cup in hand to lobbyists and ask for contributions. . . . It's the same situation. The office is for sale."
Details of the trip have been held so tightly by the mayor's office that even some D.C. Council members were unaware of it. Others said they had heard about the trip but were not invited. Only council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) plans to go.
The trip will come during a key moment in the city's annual budget process, and Evans is chairman of the council's finance and revenue committee. In past years, Evans has played a critical role in that process. This year, Evans may have to miss the budget vote, said Evans spokesman Sean Metcalf.
"He was asked to represent the council, and he said he would be honored to represent the council,'' Metcalf said.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said she was invited, but the trip "did not work for me," in part because of the time pressures of her mayoral campaign.
Council member and mayoral candidate Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) has accompanied the mayor on several previous trips but said he was not going on this one.
"You guys would crucify me," he joked.