By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), who rose to power in the wake of a congressional lobbying scandal, spent the equivalent of nearly six months on privately funded trips over the past six years, according to a new study by a nonpartisan research group.
The Center for Public Integrity said that Boehner accepted 42 privately sponsored trips from January 2000 to December 2005. That put him on the road to other countries and "golfing hotspots," often with his wife, Debbie, for about half a year, "only nine days of which he listed as being 'at personal expense,' " the center said.
Boehner also flew at least 45 times on corporate jets owned by companies "with a financial stake in congressional affairs" from June 2001 through September 2005, the center reported. The corporations on whose planes Boehner flew included tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (15 times), UST Inc. (seven times) and Swisher International Inc. (seven times).
"Boehner is one of Congress' most frequent corporate fliers," Roberta Baskin, executive director of the center, said, based on a review of other lawmakers' disclosure forms.
The report is the most detailed and comprehensive look at the new majority leader. Boehner, who was elected to the post last month, had been criticized by lawmakers who opposed his elevation for being too close to lobbyists.
Boehner rejected that characterization and offered himself as an agent of change, especially on the issue of congressional ethics. The center concluded, however, that Boehner built "a network of political and business relationships" with corporations and other interests "not unlike" his predecessor, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose tenure in the job was controversial in large part because of his close ties to lobbyists and lobbying groups. DeLay stepped down last year after he was indicted in Texas on charges of political money laundering.
In the early debate over how to crack down on lobbyists -- a byproduct of the guilty plea in January of former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- Boehner had been a leading opponent of a ban on privately paid travel. One of his first public pronouncements after winning the second-ranking position in the House leadership was to declare his disagreement with Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who wanted to end travel paid for by private interests.
Boehner pushed instead for enhanced disclosure of privately provided benefits including travel, meals and gifts -- the direction the House now appears to be taking in pending legislation. In the meantime, he has accepted a compromise that would ban privately paid travel this year until the House ethics committee devises new rules.
Kevin A. Madden, a Boehner spokesman, defended the lawmaker's trips as legal, proper and educational. He said Boehner's initial enmity toward a ban on privately paid trips was not because he has taken so many of them.
Rather, Madden pointed to the center's report as proof that disclosure works well. Madden said the study was possible because of the thorough disclosures Boehner made through the years and which he now advocates expanding. The center was able to detail Boehner's activities because his trips, "in each and every instance, were promptly and publicly disclosed according to law," Madden said.
"The fact that this report uses publicly available documents underscores Mr. Boehner's commitment to transparency and full disclosure," Madden said. "The entire approach of transparency and disclosure is so that groups like this one [the center] aren't the ultimate judge. The voters are."
Among the places Boehner traveled on privately financed trips were Edinburgh, Scotland; Venice; Brussels; and Barcelona, the center said. Two of his domestic destinations, which the center pointed out are famous for their golf courses, were Boca Raton, Fla., and Scottsdale, Ariz.
The report said Boehner received more than $160,000 in food, lodging, transportation and other expenditures on his privately paid journeys. His benefactors included the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CSX Corp. and the Sallie Mae Foundation.
The congressman also "hosted many high-end fundraisers to wine and dine potential donors and Republican colleagues," the center said. Boehner's Freedom Project political action committee, which he used to help fellow Republicans get elected to Congress, paid more than $119,000 for golf-outing fundraisers from March 2003 through the end of 2005, the center said. It also paid $25,000 to Duck Soup, the "unofficial band of the PGA Tour."
The same leadership PAC spent more than $87,000 on food, beverages and fund-raising costs at Sam & Harry's, a D.C. steakhouse popular with lobbyists, from 2001 through August 2005. It also paid more than $40,000 over two nights at Washington's Hard Rock Cafe, the center reported.
Boehner's spokesman said that those kinds of expenditures were commonplace for fundraising events.
Boehner's staff has benefited from corporate-paid travel. The congressman approved trips taken by dozens of his aides from his personal office and the staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which he chaired starting in 2001. Over the past five years, the center said, his staff aides took more than 150 privately paid trips worth more than $200,000 to locations as far-flung as Japan and Europe.