House panel won't probe six lawmakers' use of travel stipends

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The House ethics committee has decided not to pursue an investigation of lawmakers' use of travel stipends, despite findings from an independent ethics board that six members of Congress improperly kept or spent money estimated to total $7,575.

The lawmakers told ethics investigators that they either kept their leftover travel stipends or used the per diem for personal items such as gifts, according to interview summaries in the report by the Office of Congressional Ethics. The board recommended that the ethics committee investigate the six members.

But the panel's staff wrote that the investigators did not prove that the lawmakers had violated the rules in any significant way.

Congress uses a per diem system of cash stipends for overseas travel, with lawmakers given up to $250 in local currency for each day spent abroad. House rules require the lawmakers to return any money they do not spend on official expenses.

Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R- Ala.) told investigators that he had used his money to buy T-shirts for his son, postcards, a doll, a wallet and leather goods, according to the report.

A spokesman for Aderholt did not return a call seeking comment.

In his official response to the committee, Aderholt said he cooperated with the investigation but could not produce records of his expenses because he did not think the law required him to keep them.

In recommending a dismissal of the matter, ethics committee staffers wrote that although the lawmakers admitted to using per diem money for gifts, which "the Committee would agree would not be appropriate, there is no evidence that per diem was actually used for such expenses."

The conflicting reports reflect tension in the two-tier ethics structure that was set up in the House when Democrats took control of the chamber in 2007. The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent body that refers cases to the ethics panel, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

"This is pretty much the routine," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said of the committee. "It seems like they just ignored the facts that they didn't like so they could get to a conclusion that they did."

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) told investigators that he used official money for flags and trinkets, including a small statue from Turkey that sits on his desk in Congress.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that this matter would be dismissed," Wilson said in a written statement. "I appreciate members of the Committee on Standards for thoroughly examining the matter brought before them."

Lawmakers are not allowed to use the money to pay for expenses incurred by their spouses, who often travel with them. Wilson told investigators that he did not have any money left over on one trip because, according to the report, "his wife was with him." Investigators wrote that he told them "he had to reimburse others for money that his wife borrowed."

The inquiry by the ethics board follows an article published last year in the Wall Street Journal that quoted the six lawmakers and other House members who said they either kept the unused money, spent it on personal items or gifts, or were not aware of the requirement to keep track of and return leftover funds.

Other lawmakers referred to the House committee were Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), Elliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.)

The panel asked for written responses to the allegations in the investigators' report. Butterfield, who is a member of the committee, did not respond, but the other lawmakers denied wrongdoing. No lawmaker other than Wilson responded to The Washington Post's requests for comment.

The investigators' report examined 30 trips taken by the lawmakers in recent years and totaled the amount of per diem they received for the trips. The investigators then looked at itineraries for the trips to find out when the members had scheduled meals that were hosted by the foreign government or funded by U.S. taxpayers or others, arriving at the estimate of $7,575 in misspent money.

The committee's staff wrote that although the meals appeared on the itineraries, that is "no evidence" that the lawmakers were present for the meals or that someone else paid for them.

The lawmakers gave varying accounts of how often they paid for meals with their per diem. Aderholt told investigators that he rarely pays for meals; Hastings said he does it often.

Confusion about the rules stems from an ambiguous definition of what can be included in the per diem. Federal travel regulations, which cover the executive branch, say that the per diem covers lodging, three meals and incidental expenses such as tips and transportation. But investigators wrote that Hastings told them he thinks the per diem covers "those expenses that he would customarily incur if he were on personal travel."

In his official response to the ethics committee, Hastings denied using his per diem for expenses other than lodging, meals and incidentals but confirmed that he followed the broader definition of incidental expenses that he gave investigators.

Parts of the investigators' report indicate that the per diem problem could be widespread.

One aide who accounts for travel expenses for members on a government panel known as the Helsinki Commission said that only 35 to 40 percent of lawmakers on that body return any leftover stipend money after their trips.

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