Washington – Scandals that involved pricey outings to Scotland and elsewhere, paid for by notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, prodded Congress to implement tough new travel regulations -- yet congressional travel is again on the uptick, and members of the Connecticut delegation have not been immune to offers of free trips.
A review of congressional records shows that, in the last two years, Connecticut lawmakers and their staff took trips valued at tens of thousands of dollars to Turkey, Israel, Morocco, India, Ireland and other destinations. All were paid for by special interests, nonprofits and think tanks.
Those trips helped raise the number of privately funded congressional trips in 2013 to 1,888 -- at a total cost of about $6 million, according to LegiStorm, a company that tracks information about Congress.
Congressional travel peaked in 2006 at 1,860 trips valued at $3.6 million, LegiStorm determined, then declined sharply after new rules implemented in 2007 prevented lobbyists for corporate clients from planning or paying for a lawmaker's trip.
But there are loopholes to the rules. They don’t apply if a trip is paid for by a foreign government or a nonprofit organization, even if it's tied to an organization with a political bent, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, approved an 11-day trip to Israel for her legislative director, Daniel Zeitlin, last December that was covered by AIPAC’s education foundation. The trip cost $4,986 – including a $602 fee for personal security.
DeLauro also approved a trip to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, for another staffer, Melinda Cep. It was largely paid for by Management Sciences for Health, a nonprofit that works on global health issues. A third staffer was allowed to take an overnight trip to New York that was paid for by the Wilderness Conservation Society.
“Whether it is a focus on foreign affairs, wilderness conservation, or women’s health issues, these trips have been valuable and provided new insight into the work the congresswoman’s staff does for her constituents,” said DeLauro press secretary Sara Lonardo.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), a government watchdog group, said sometimes lawmakers and staff take free trips in an honest effort to learn more about an issue and meet people who will help them understand those issues.
But often providing a trip is a way for lobbyists and other special interest to gain favor with a lawmaker or influential congressional aide.
“The kind of travel that always raises questions is when it’s to Boca Raton [Fla.] in February,” Sloan said.
The scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff, the brazen lobbyist who defrauded his Native American clients and funded dozens of trips, including a $160,000 jaunt to the famed St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland, prompted congressional leaders to tighten travel rules in 2007.
Sloan said the change discouraged congressional travel for a while, putting a damper on even legitimate travel. But Sloan also said privately funded travel of all types “has crept back because Washington has a short memory.”
Lobbyists are also becoming more adept at finding loopholes, starting up their own nonprofits, as AIPAC has, and meeting lawmakers overseas on trips paid for by foreign governments, Sloan said.
The priciest trip recently taken by a member of the Connecticut delegation was Sen. Chris Murphy’s $21,000 trip to Morocco in October at the expense of the German Marshall Fund, a nonprofit organization concerned with trans-Atlantic relationships. Murphy is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe.
Murphy, who was accompanied by his wife Catherine, was the only U.S. lawmaker on the trip to Morocco, whose purpose was to attend a conference organized in conjunction with the OCP Foundation, the nonprofit arm of a Moroccan company that mines phosphorus and makes fertilizers.
Murphy also traveled to La Quinta, Calif., in January, a trip sponsored by the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Ben Marter, the senator’s press secretary, said Murphy traveled to California to give a speech on “the nexus between mental health funding and guns.”
“Part of Senator Murphy’s job is both working as a member of the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee and working to help lead the national conversation on issues like gun violence and health care reform,” Marter said.
Some trips are short and inexpensive, like the one Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, took to Boston in 2012 at the expense of the Connecticut Dental Association that cost $236.
But most trips, especially if their destination is overseas, are not.
Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, took an overseas trip last summer, with his son Raymond, to Ireland. It cost more than $15,000 and was paid for by the Ripon Society, an organization of GOP moderates named for the Wisconsin town where the Republican Party was born, and by the Franklin Center, a journalism watchdog based in Bismarck, N.D., that has a conservative bent. An overwhelming majority of the lawmakers and congressional staffers that went on the trip are Republicans.
“In Ireland, Congressman Larson met with Republican colleagues to further his ability to work across the aisle,” said Larson spokesman Edmund Skowronek.
In 2012, Larson approved a staff member's trip to Bosnia and Turkey that was paid for by the Turkish Coalition of America, a Turkish advocacy group. He approved a trip for another staffer to San Diego, Calif., hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. The nonprofit foundation promotes the information technology industry and its board is filled with corporate executives and lobbyists, including former 5th District Connecticut Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Republican.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, also approved a trip to Turkey for his legislative director, Rachel Kelly, that was sponsored by the Council of Turkic American Associations.
Himes staffers also took short trips to Philadelphia, paid for by Third Way, a think tank that promotes a centrist agenda, and a trip to San Francisco, funded by the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco.
“Our office screens trips carefully but encourages staff to take advantage of educational opportunities that help them do their jobs better,” said Himes spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerr. “These specific trips included intensive seminars and meetings regarding complex financial services and foreign affairs issues, which you can’t learn just by reading a few white papers.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has not taken any trips funded by special interests since he assumed office in 2012. But he’s approved several trips for staffers, including one to India that featured a tour of Mother Teresa’s home and another to Guatemala that included travel by helicopter.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, who was sworn in to office in January 2013, has not accepted or approved any privately funded travel.