When Fidel Castro asked Houston's freshman Democratic congressman, Rep. Mickey Leland, to be among those on hand last month when the Cuban government released four American prisoners, it wasn't Leland's first visit to the island nation.Last spring he and his girlfriend visited Cuba via a jet chartered and paid for by the wealthy owner of Houston City Magazine.

In response to an inquiry, Leland now says that "before I die, I'm going to pay part of the cost of that plane," while at the same time maintaining he has no qualms about accepting the hospitality of Francois de Menil, owner of Houston City Magazine.

After Leland was invited to visit Cuba last May, de Menil and the vice president of Houston City Magazine thought that might be an opportune time to profile the congressman. De Menil arranged to charter a jet to take the congressman, his girlfriend, aide and others -- including de Menil as well as a photographer and reporter -- to Havana. The flight cost more than $12,000, according to de Menil, scion of a wealthy Houston family whose fortune comes from an interest in drill bit manurfacturing. The de Menil family is known as a generous patron of the arts in Texas, and Leland has served on the board of the family's charitable foundation.

In Cuba de Menil also picked up the hotel and food tab for the group, though the congressman says he paid that back. Leland says that after "looking at the law and ethics thoroughly" he decided he would accept the invitation to fly in style to Cuba. And in fact there is nothing illegal about Leland's accepting the free ride. But he says that someday he'll pay his share of the junket "just so I can wash my hands clean of this."

Footnote: The trip ended on a sour note, according to two people involved. The congressman's girlfriend, an American University law student, caused the trip to be cut short because she had to begin a summer job as a law clerk, a move that angered others. Leland denies that, saying he had to return. He does acknowledge borrowing $50 from a fellow traveler at the Fort Lauderdale airport after he and his girlfriend argued publicly about the destination of the plane. She apparently thought the jet would drop her off in Washington after clearing customs in Florida. Infuriated to learn de Menil was returning the plane to Houston, she stormed off to take a commercial flight from Miami. Those details were not in the Houston City Magazine piece by Washington writer Jeff Stein, who says his article was "heavily edited." Stein's portrayal of Leland is distinctly unflattering, which prompted the congressman to suggest Stein "kiss my a__." Leland says the contacts he made and lessons he learned in Havana will prove invaluable during his congressional career.