Ethics panel eyes Caribbean trip taken by members of Congressional Black Caucus

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009 10:56 AM

After receiving a referral from the Office of Congressional Ethics, the House ethics committee announced in June that it would create an investigative subcommittee to look into "officially connected travel in 2007 and 2008 that was sponsored, funded or organized by an organization known as Carib News or Carib News Foundation."

The panel publicly named five Democratic lawmakers who were under scrutiny -- Reps. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (Mich.), Donald M. Payne (N.J.) and Bennie Thompson (Miss.), and Del. Donna M. Christian-Christensen (U.S. Virgin Islands). The inquiry stemmed from reports in the Hill and the New York Post newspapers raising questions about an annual conference at a St. Maarten resort that the lawmakers attended.

The members' official disclosure forms listed the New York Carib Foundation or Carib News Foundation, a nonprofit group affiliated with a New York-based newspaper, as the sponsor of the event. Because of that information, the ethics committee approved the trip before it occurred.

But an official with the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, attended the 2008 event and came back with photos and other evidence suggesting that AT&T, Citigroup, IBM, Pfizer and Verizon may have played a role in sponsoring the conference.

The ethics panel also reportedly is scrutinizing a 2007 trip to Antigua and Barbuda that some of the same members took.

Under more stringent rules imposed in 2006, House members are not allowed to accept travel paid for by corporations, but they can take trips sponsored by nonprofit groups. The rules have sparked some confusion over the past three years, as it remains unclear what exactly it means for a particular group or company to "sponsor" an event.

All of the lawmakers being investigated regarding the Carib News trip belong to the Congressional Black Caucus, and the group has met to discuss whether its members are being unfairly targeted for ethics inquiries. The ethics investigative subcommittee looking into the Caribbean trips is chaired by Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who also is a member of the CBC and took a Carib News-sponsored trip before the 2006 rules were imposed.

The ethics investigation appears to be ongoing, and the committee document gives no details about how far the investigation has progressed.

An aide to Christian-Christensen said her boss had been contacted by the ethics committee but declined to comment further.

Kilpatrick said in a statement released by her office that she had provided testimony and a written statement to the ethics subcommittee.

Rangel, who also is under investigation on several unrelated fronts, said this week that he has discussed the Caribbean trip inquiry with the ethics panel.

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