AP file
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, left, has seen controversy over his ties to Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, right.
updated 5/3/2005 3:38:34 PM ET 2005-05-03T19:38:34

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s office says a U.S. territorial government was supposed to pay for travel by two of his staff aides to the Pacific island. Two Democratic congressmen filed disclosure forms saying a nonprofit group paid their expenses to the same place.

They all were at least partially wrong, according to lobbying firm records obtained by The Associated Press. The expenses were paid initially by lobbyist Jack Abramoff or his former firm, despite House rules prohibiting lobbyists from paying for the travel of lawmakers or their aides.

It’s not clear to this day whether the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands partially or fully reimbursed Abramoff or the Preston Gates law and lobbying firm that hired him. The nonprofit group says it never paid a dime.

DeLay’s aides traveled to the islands in December 1996. Democratic Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi went there in January 1997.

Firm 'looking into it'
Preston Gates, shown its own internal documents by the AP, said in a statement: “We’re looking into it. Some things we’re learning about just now.”

Abramoff, whose lobbying is under criminal investigation, pressed his clients, the Northern Marianas government, to reimburse him for the travel because of concerns the payments might draw scrutiny from the House committee that investigates lawmakers’ conduct, the documents obtained by the AP show.

“I ... expect to receive a call tomorrow or Tuesday from the House ethics committee, asking for an update as to the reimbursement situation and, possibly, our outstanding bill. They are watching the trips very closely,” Abramoff wrote a Marianas official in December 1996.

Abramoff and Preston Gates represented the Pacific island government. One priority was to persuade Congress to block Clinton administration efforts to regulate alleged “sweatshop” garment factories. The rules never were enacted.

The records state Preston Gates paid hotel and airfare for Thompson and Clyburn.

Clyburn said in an interview he had never heard of Abramoff at the time, and provided a copy of a letter showing he was invited by the nonprofit foundation. “That’s all I know about it,” he said. Thompson did not return several calls seeking comment.

Credit card use documented
The Preston Gates billing documents also included a hotel bill for DeLay’s chief of staff in 1996, Ed Buckham, and travel upgrades for Buckham and another DeLay aide at the time, Tony Rudy. DeLay was then majority whip, the third-ranking House Republican.

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The documents show Abramoff used his credit card to pay for at least some congressional travel to the islands, and then sent urgent e-mails because the territorial government was slow in paying, leaving the travelers possibly in violation of House rules.

“Per instructions from Preston, we have been using Jack Abramoff’s credit card for past tickets,” a travel agent e-mailed the island government on Dec. 11, 1996, regarding airfare. “I have been asked to contact you regarding direct payment . . . for future tickets.”

DeLay spokesman Dan Allen said his office believes the trip expenses for the two aides were paid by the government of the Northern Marianas, not Abramoff.

“The office’s understanding is both traveled to CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) in 1996 at the invitation of the Northern Marianas, a territory of the United States,” Allen said.

“Under House ethics rules, House employees may accept travel paid for by a governmental entity with no restrictions on the staff’s ability to accept travel by such a governmental entity — whether in terms of trip duration, accompanying individuals or otherwise.”

DeLay’s office did not report the trip in House disclosure records. Allen said disclosure wasn’t necessary since a U.S. territorial government was paying for the trip.

'Totally proper,' Abramoff spokesman says
An Abramoff spokesman, Andrew Blum, said Monday: “The tradition of lobbyists traveling with members of Congress to visit various jurisdictions so that they could learn about issues that impact the Congress and government policy is well known. Mr. Abramoff once again is being singled for actions that are commonplace in Washington, D.C., and are totally proper.”

Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics rules and campaign finance, said lawmakers and their aides probably would avoid any findings of wrongdoing by demonstrating they had no knowledge of the lobbyist payments.

“If a member generally doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s hard to see how the member would be held to violate ethics rules,” he said.

Questions also have been raised about whether DeLay’s airfare to London and Scotland in 2000 was charged to an Abramoff credit card, and whether other expenses on the same trip were billed to a credit card used by Buckham, who had become a lobbyist by that time.

The documents show that the following payments were made for the trip involving the DeLay aides in December 1996 and the travel by Clyburn and Thompson a month later:

  • $2,028 in hotel expenses for Buckham, then DeLay’s chief of staff.
  • A $52 travel upgrade for Buckham and another $52 for Rudy, then a DeLay aide and now an executive in Buckham’s firm.
  • Airfare of $5,013 for Thompson and a hotel bill of $227.
  • Airfare totaling $4,596 for Clyburn, and a hotel bill of $227.

Ex-foundation director denies paying
The lawmakers were invited to the Marianas by a nonprofit organization, the National Security Caucus Foundation. Clyburn said he understood the foundation would be paying the expenses.

But Gregg Hilton, who ran the now-defunct foundation, said the group never paid for the trip. He said the lawmakers weren’t told the foundation that invited them never put up the money. Both Clyburn and Thompson filed House disclosure reports showing the group paid for the travel, and Clyburn provided the invitation letter.

Hilton, who was on the trip himself, said the National Security Caucus Foundation was a project of the American Security Council Foundation, an organization he ran and now serves as a director. The foundations promoted a strong national defense, democracy and human rights.

Hilton said he arranged the trip with the island government and was led to believe by Preston Gates officials that the territory would pay the expenses and be reimbursed by the private sector.

He said he was not aware that Abramoff or Preston Gates paid for the trip until the AP showed him the documents.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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