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D.C. Council Members Have Some Travel Advice for Fenty

Underfire for his trip to Dubai in February, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty faces questions from Post reporters David Nakamura and Hamil Harris. Video by Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post

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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's decision to accept donations from foreign governments to subsidize his travel abroad puts him at odds with the usual practices of governors and mayors, including his predecessor, Anthony A. Williams.

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After returning to Washington from a week in Dubai and Abu Dhabi last month, Fenty (D) disclosed, through a memo released by D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles at 8 p.m. on a Friday, that the government of the United Arab Emirates had paid $25,000 for his flight, accommodations and meals. The same memo also disclosed that Fenty accepted $11,300 from the Chinese government to attend the Olympics in Beijing and to visit Shanghai with his family.

"The way it worked was, I was going to go to Dubai, and we contacted officials in preparation, and everything else followed after that," Fenty said last week. "There isn't any allegation the law was violated or that any ethics laws were violated, and there is no allegation there was a conflict of interest."

But his handling of the trip -- Fenty did not announce it publicly ahead of time -- has rankled some of his fellow politicians, who say the mayor was not forthright about where he was going, what he was doing and how it will benefit the District.

"It comes down to making people understand the priority being served, and the connection of where you are going will be a benefit to the city," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who has attended two car shows in Europe and a shopping convention in Las Vegas with other city officials. The Washington Auto Show organizers paid for his trips to Europe, which were aimed at drumming up support for the D.C. show, and his council budget paid for the trip to Las Vegas.

"People should have some indication what you accomplished," Gray said. "You must create transparency and trust. It's not the number of trips, but what is your purpose?"

Travel by public officials is almost always tricky. Mayors and governors are criticized for being out of town during important local events, for using public funds or for accepting private donations that might cause a conflict of interest.

Accepting payment from foreign governments appears rare. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has been to Europe twice, as well as London, Canada and a combined trip to Japan and India. All but one of the trips were billed as economic development missions and paid by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership; the London trip was paid for by a state tourism corporation.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has been to Ireland three times -- twice to give speeches and once to receive an honorary degree -- and to Israel for economic development. The Ireland trips were financed by an Irish university, a Dublin chamber of commerce and the Irish Institute. The Israel trip was funded by a Maryland state business development agency.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) has taken three foreign trips, for economic development and to attend a leadership summit; each time his expenses were paid by Los Angeles government entities, including the port and airport authorities.

And Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), for whom Fenty has often expressed admiration, took a trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi that overlapped with Fenty's trip. In contrast to Fenty, who was accompanied by his wife and twin sons, Daley announced the trip ahead of time as an economic development mission, and his delegation included a group of Chicago business leaders, who paid for the trip.

"If I was going, I would like to take a team of experts with me. They call those foreign trade missions," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, who has not traveled abroad since joining the council.

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