Officials' Trips to Israel Said to Tip Ethics Scale
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Montgomery County lawmakers, along with dozens of officials from around the region, for years have taken trips to Israel, with most expenses paid by local Jewish organizations. But the trips -- now worth about $4,000 -- appear to violate the county's ethics law, according to an ethics commission ruling.
The as-yet unpublished ruling, described in an e-mail made available to The Washington Post, helped scuttle the plans of several Montgomery officials who had hoped to fly Sunday to Israel for a nine-day trip. Until County Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) sought a formal opinion in June, no one had asked the ethics panel for its view.
The trips have been organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council, which lobbies and does charitable work in the region. The council canceled the trip this week after several officials dropped out, either because of the panel ruling or for other reasons, the trip's organizer said.
Other Montgomery officials who had planned to go were Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Board of Education President Nancy Navarro. Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) also had signed on but dropped out a few weeks ago, before the ethics panel ruled.
Navarro was told by the school system's attorney that she could go because the community relations council does not have business ties to the schools, according to school system spokesman Brian Edwards. A few hours before the trip was canceled, she decided not to go, citing a family commitment.
After learning of the ethics panel's ruling, Trachtenberg offered to pay her way and Berliner decided not to go.
Trip organizer Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he was "stunned" by the ethics ruling. His organization has run 20 trips for local leaders in the past 25 years, he said.
"There is certain foreign travel that is very beneficial for elected officials. Do we really want to restrict our officials to say you can't go outside of the United States to gather information?" Halber said.
Montgomery has one of the region's largest Jewish communities and also is home to more than a dozen Israeli businesses.
Officials who accept the trips are asked to pay $500 to $1,000 to defray expenses. The trips usually are reported on elected officials' annual financial disclosure forms.
Many state and local officials have taken the trips in recent years, including Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn, both Maryland Democrats; James P. Moran Jr., a Northern Virginia Democrat, and Thomas M. Davis III, a Northern Virginia Republican. Other local travelers have included former Montgomery executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and members of his staff; County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) during his time on the County Council; and several members of Montgomery's council.
Critics of privately financed foreign travel for public officials say it allows advocacy groups to win over the officials by wining and dining them.