The image that had many in Congress buzzing Friday as they rushed to adjourn wasn't the latest budget package, but an ABC News "PrimeTime Live" report that secretly videotaped nine House members frolicking with lobbyists on the beach during a taxpayer-sponsored trip to Barbados last spring.
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, led the delegation of 33 members, wives and aides -- who flew by Air Force VIP jet on a 12-day trip that also included Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica.
ABC found the group spent about seven hours in official meetings in Barbados over the Easter weekend stay. The rest of the time was spent dining, swimming, jet skiing, and playing tennis, golf and touch football on the beach with lobbyists from the insurance, computer and toiletries industries.
One sequence, which the network shot by posing as tourists with camcorders, showed former congressman Dawson Mathis (D-Ga.), now an insurance lobbyist, cigar in mouth, peeling off currency to pay attendants for jet skis for Reps. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) and George Miller (D-Calif.). Miller was the only House member on the trip who is not a member of the the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Other lobbyists paid for dinners and receptions. Golf greens fees were billed to the U.S. Embassy. Members billed the government $1,176 each in per diem expenses for the stay at the Paradise Village and Beach Club. The Barbados leg of the trip cost the taxpayers about $42,000, ABC estimated.
Aides to some of the members who made the trip said some constituents were calling their offices denouncing the trip as a taxpayer-paid vacation. Some other members and lobbyists said the only thing unusual about the Ways and Means trip was the presence of the ABC cameras.
None of the members responded to ABC's interview requests, so "PrimeTime" co-anchor Sam Donaldson ambushed Downey and Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.). Both defended the trip as legitimate and denied there was any connection between the presence of insurance and computer company lobbyists and tax bills they introduced that would aid both industries.
Russo said in an interview Friday that he introduced a computer bill to help the competitiveness of the U.S. industry after hearing testimony from a trade association. ABC noted that one of the lobbyists on the trip was Robert Macari, a former Russo aide who represents a computer company. "Bob Macari's been my closest friend for 25 years. He was there with his family for vacation," the congressman said.
Vincent P. Reusing, a lobbyist for Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., said through a spokesman that he made the trip to discuss "matters of interest" to the firm with lawmakers "in an informal setting." An aide for Downey, who made only the Barbados portion of the trip, said Reusing was a personal friend of the congressman and bought him dinner one night.
Mathis and E. Edward Kavanaugh, president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, who sponsored a party for delegation, didn't return a reporter's phone calls.
Rep. Raymond J. McGrath (R-N.Y.) told Newsday that the presence of the lobbyists bothered him. "I was very uncomfortable when I heard they were there," he said. "I told the chairman that I didn't think it looked good to have these guys there and that they should leave."
A Rostenkowski spokesman said the trip was legitimate, noting that the official business discussion on Barbados led to passage of a law on the Caribbean Basin Initiative.
Other members on the trip were Reps. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.), and Richard T. Schulze (R-Pa.). Though the trip was advertised in a committee press release as one to study trade and economic issues, trade subcommittee chairman Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) wasn't invited, an aide said.