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Lobbyists Arranged N.Y. Congressman’s $20,000 Trip To Taiwan

Four-day Visit by Rep. Bill Owens and Wife Was Set Up by Ex-Sen. Al D’Amato’s Firm; House Ethics Rules Forbid Participation In Lobbyist-Organized Trips.

Rep. Bill Owens and his wife Jane took a trip to Taiwan organized by lobbyists. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Update May 11, 2012: Rep. Bill Owens announces he will reimburse costs for Taiwan trip.

Two days after Christmas last year, Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., and his wife, Jane, boarded a first-class flight to Taiwan for a four-day tour of the island. Owens and his wife roomed at $500-a-night luxury hotels and enjoyed fine meals between meetings with Taiwanese officials and a day trip to Taipei’s famed National Palace Museum.

The Chinese Culture University in Taiwan had ostensibly invited the congressman and his wife “to promote international cultural exchange.” In fact, lobbyists for Taiwan’s government had organized the trip. Congressional ethics rules prohibit members from participating in most trips arranged by lobbyists. 

Although Owens filed a travel disclosure with the House Ethics Committee that identifies the trip’s sponsor as the Culture University, email messages and other documents reviewed by ProPublica show that lobbyists from the New York firm Park Strategies, founded by former New York Sen. Al D’Amato, had invited Owens on the trip and spent four months organizing it.

A rule passed by Congress after the Jack Abramoff scandal states: “Member and staff participation in officially-connected travel that is in any way planned, organized, requested, or arranged by a lobbyist is prohibited.”

Besides D’Amato, others involved in arranging the trip included two executives at his firm, John Zagame and Sean King, son of Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. The Park Strategies lobbyists are registered foreign agents for the government of Taiwan.

“Lobbyists are not supposed to be associated with this trip in any way — they are not supposed to be organizing this or orchestrating it,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, who helped draft the post-Abramoff reforms.

The Ethics Committee investigates potential rule violations and can recommend penalties, such as censure or a fine, to the full House. The committee approved Owens’ trip before he left, but the congressman's filings with the panel listed only the Culture University as sponsor and did not mention Park Strategies.

Both Park Strategies and Owens’ spokesman told ProPublica they believe the trip complied with House rules.

Congress adopted the rule barring lobbyist involvement in most congressional travel after abuses exposed by the Abramoff influence-peddling scandal. Trips were a favorite method of Abramoff to warm members of Congress and staffers to his clients’ interests. In the most serious case, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2007 after admitting he accepted luxury travel and other gifts from Abramoff while helping the lobbyist’s clients.

Park Strategies’ organizing role in the Owens trip stands out because it is documented by an unusually rich trove of email and other records filed by the firm with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires disclosure of congressional contacts by lobbyists for foreign governments, businesses and political organizations, among others.

The episode also sheds light on Park Strategies’ work to influence Congress on behalf of Taiwan. The nation is constantly seeking greater military and diplomatic aid from the U.S. in its standoff with China, which considers the island a breakaway territory.

Park also has worked to advance Taiwanese commercial interests in the U.S., including arranging meetings with a semiconductor manufacturer that has business in upstate New York. Owens, who has served in the House since 2009, represents a rural swath of northern New York including areas bordering Vermont and Canada.

Flying First Class

Owens’ Taiwanese hosts spent $360 per day for meals for the congressman and his wife, or a total of $1,440 for the four-day trip, ethics committee filings show. Lodging for the couple at the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei and the Ambassador Hotel Kaohsiung averaged $520 per night. First- and business-class flights to and from Taipei cost more than $19,000 for the couple. 

The grand total for the trip: $22,132.

D’Amato’s Park Strategies signed up as a foreign agent for Taiwan’s de facto embassy, known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), in 2009. The firm has recently worked to increase congressional pressure on the Obama administration to sell advanced F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan — a top priority of that government. In a shift last month, the administration signaled it might approve the sale.

It’s been a lucrative account for the firm, with Taiwan paying more than $250,000 in 2011 alone, filings show.

The man “leading the firm’s push into Asia” is Sean King, a former Bush administration Commerce Department staffer. His father, Rep. King, is a longtime D’Amato ally going back to their days together in the Nassau County Republican Party. The elder King considers D’Amato his mentor. Sean King divides his time between New York and Park Strategies’ office in Taipei, where he also maintains a residence, according to his official bio.

Between August and January, there were 35 exchanges about the trip between Park Strategies lobbyists and Owens and his aides — by phone, email and in person — including a December call between D’Amato and Owens.

The planning appears to have started in early August 2011, when Zagame and Sean King met for lunch at KyoChon Chicken at Fifth Avenue and 32nd Street in Manhattan to discuss the trip and other matters. They billed Taiwan for the $50 check.

Later that month, King and Zagame, a former New York state assemblyman and D’Amato's chief of staff in the Senate, reached out to Owens’ chief of staff and his senior legislative assistant, Jon Boughtin.

King sent Boughtin a draft itinerary in mid-October. “This gives Mr. Owens a rough idea of what he might expect if he goes,” King wrote. “It can be adjusted as per his needs and wishes to incorporate whatever other stops, or meetings, he might want to make.”

At the end of the month, Boughtin checked with King about the funding of the trip. Boughtin wanted to make sure the trip would be covered under a 1961 law called the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA).

“YES, it would be,” King replied.

The Constitution bars gifts from foreign governments to U.S. officials unless Congress specifically authorizes them. But under the MECEA law, the State Department can approve programs to promote culture exchange that are proposed by other countries. Once a program is approved — Taiwan’s was OK’d in 2006 — members of Congress can take a qualifying trip paid by that government.

But Owens’ trip was not paid under MECEA, which strictly applies to programs funded by foreign governments. Instead, a private entity — the Chinese Culture University — was brought in to pay for it. Spouses and other family members are not allowed to go on MECEA trips, and Owens’ wife was to accompany him, emails show.

Park Strategies regularly asks members of Congress and staff to travel to Taiwan. For example, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) went there in October on a Park organized trip, although it was paid for under the MECEA program.

‘Whenever’s Good For Rep. Owens’

In November, Boughtin was proposing possible trip dates in email messages to Sean King. “Whenever's good for Rep. Owens is I'm sure also good for Taiwan,” King wrote in a Nov. 3 email.

Later that month, Boughtin’s requests had shifted: Owens’ wife was now involved. “The boss and his wife are looking to travel to Taiwan beginning on December 27th,” he wrote Nov. 21.

A week later, the Chinese Culture University entered the picture. Its president sent Owens and his wife an official invitation to visit Taiwan during the dates Boughtin had specified to King.

Why was the school paying for the trip? In a filing with the House Ethics Committee, the school explained: “The Chinese Culture University aims to promote international cultural exchanges in order for it to thrive in a world increasingly engineered by an irresistible thrust towards globalization.”

The itinerary accompanying the filing was in the same format as the sample itinerary King had sent to Boughtin, and many of the stops were the same.

On Dec. 5, a few days after the university sent Owens the invitation, King traveled to Washington to meet with Owens and a staffer about the trip. The next day, Owens’ office filed a required pre-trip request form with the House Ethics Committee. On Dec. 7, D’Amato and Owens discussed the trip by phone.

Also on Dec. 7, China Airlines sent confirmation of the flight to Taiwan to a pair of Owens staffers.

There were nine more contacts between Parks Strategies lobbyists and Boughtin about the trip before Owens and his wife departed Dec. 27. During the trip itself, King had two contacts with Boughtin, and another after the trip was over Jan. 3.

Taiwan Embassy Involvement

Park Strategies appears to have proposed this kind of handoff to a private sponsor to at least one other member of Congress who wanted to travel with a family member. In one email last year, LaShaun Lesley, then the firm’s compliance coordinator, wrote to the chief of staff of Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., about a trip to Taiwan for Shuster and his son.

“About a week ago, you and I spoke about Congressman Shuster possibly travelling to Taiwan with his son and having it paid through a private sponsor,” she wrote. “In principle, we've been told by Taiwan's representatives that travel to Taiwan through a private sponsor can in fact be arranged.”

The trip never happened.

As for the Owens trip, there is little evidence that the Chinese Culture University was involved other than hosting a dinner for the congressman. But Taiwanese government officials appear in many of the planning documents.

In two November emails between King and Boughtin, the name of Frank Lee, the director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office's congressional liaison division, comes up. On Nov. 21, Boughtin told King the final dates of the trip, adding, “I'll reach out to Mr. Frank Lee about the details but wanted to let you know. Thanks!”

A week later, King offered more help on the trip planning. Boughtin responded, “So far so good! I think the Embassy [TECRO] has what they need from us so far, but I'll let you know when I know more.”

Lee told ProPublica that King had reached out to TECRO about Owens traveling to Taiwan. “Sean asked me to work with the member’s office,” Lee said.

Since the Chinese Culture University doesn’t have any staff in the United States, Lee said, “Our job is to help arrange the trips.” He said TECRO did not provide any funds to the university for congressional trips, which the school has also sponsored in the past.

He said he understood that King, as a lobbyist, was not allowed to organize trips for members. But Lee said, “[King] just passed a message to this office, and we just took it over.” Asked about the email messages and contact logs showing extensive discussions between Park Strategies and Owens’ office about the trip, Lee referred questions to Park Strategies.

“While Park Strategies did ask Congressman Owens to visit Taiwan, and also offered input regarding his travel agenda, the trip was sponsored by Taiwan’s Chinese Cultural University,” Park Strategies Managing Director Christopher D’Amato said in a statement.

D’Amato, the former senator’s son, maintained the trip did not violate congressional travel rules because “lobbyist involvement in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging Members’ overseas travel is permitted for travel that is sponsored by an institute of higher education.”

There is an exception for institutions of higher education in the prohibition on lobbyist-organized trips, but it applies only to American institutions. The House rules state that lobbyists can organize trips “when the travel is sponsored by an institution of higher education within the meaning of section 101 of the Higher Education Act of 1965.” Section 101 defines schools as existing in the United States.

Park declined to comment further.

The Chinese Culture University did not check the box defining itself as an institution of higher education on its pre-trip filing with the Ethics Committee. 

Owens spokesman Sean Magers told ProPublica in a statement: “Congressman Owens filed all the necessary paperwork with the House Ethics Committee and conducted the trip with their approval. The trip was planned through significant communication with the embassy of Taiwan, and we believe it was conducted within full compliance of House rules.”

The ethics committee did not offer comment in response to multiple calls.

Pitch to Taiwan Semiconductor

As part of his trip, Owens met with an executive from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to pitch the company on upstate New York, where a competing company is building a chip fabrication plant. The latter project was made possible with more than $1 billion in state incentives.

“They were receptive but not committal,” Owens told the Watertown Daily Times.

Park Strategies also represents Mohawk Valley EDGE, an economic development agency in central New York, according to a Park Strategies email from November. Officials from the Mohawk agency, which covers an area that includes part of the redrawn district in which Owens is seeking re-election, also traveled to Taiwan last summer to visit the semiconductor maker.

Park Strategies is one of the fastest-growing lobby shops in New York, having taken in more than $3 million in state and local business in 2011, according to a Newsday analysis of state lobbying records.

In the months after Owens returned from his trip, Park Strategies executives, including King, D’Amato’s brother Armand, and Christopher D’Amato, collectively donated $3,500 to Owens’ campaign. D'Amato's wife, Katuria, also gave Owens $2,500. Owens' contest against Republican Matt Doheny is rated a “pure tossup” by The Rothenberg Political Report.

The congressman doesn’t appear to have voted on any Taiwan issues since he returned in January. In July, just before the trip planning got under way, Park Strategies’ King asked Boughtin to have the congressman sign a letter supporting the F-16 sale to Taiwan.

Boughtin emailed him back: “[W]e're on board. All set!”

Owens’ spokesman said the Taiwan letter and the trip were unrelated. Nearly 200 other lawmakers also signed the letter.

Justin,

This article begs a few important questions.

For instance, what turned you onto this story, and this member of Congress, in the first place? I know you won’t name your source, but these kinds of stories don’t just fall in reporters laps and your readers deserve to know what triggered this story. Was it a tip? Or were you just reading state department documents and happened to pick this example out?

Why did you choose to write about this member of Congress and not the the dozens of others congresspeople Park group was supposedly not permitted to contact re. travel, as evidenced by the documents behind this article?

From your story and supporting documents, Representative Tom Reed apparently had a similar experience with travel to to Taiwan, Park Group lobbyists and Park Group campaign contributions. Why didn’t you write about him, as well? I hope you don’t cite the sponsor of the trip as the reason, because that is clearly not central to your story.

I realize these are a lot of questions but I hope you’ll take the time to consider them.

Thank you.

To follow my last comment, Justin, I hope you will not only consider my questions but will answer them as well.

William C Crain

May 10, 2012, 10:59 p.m.

F-16 sales ~ the Warrior Culture and Neo-con Hoodlums ~ thank you for publishing this story - i’ll post it on FB. Clearly the Neo-con parasites and thugs are so much more prevalent than the more insidious Neo-libs who are actually worse but the Cronyism and padded deals are sooooo Repug ! just think Duke ‘the Crook’ Cunningham ~

Mike, let me get this straight.  You are demanding answers on why this story of a Congressman ignoring fairly clear rules for his dealing with a Lobbyist was written.  Yet you have no questions for the Congressman who took the illegal $20,000 trip along with a total of $6,000 in donations to his reelection campaign.  I’m glad you have your priorities right.  Next thing you will be saying the total of $26,000 pay off will have no affect on any future vote.

Junket timeeeeeeeeeee .

Insiteful article into this ever present murky ‘junket’ (tit for tat?) racket. There’s probably enough good/great historic & on-going content in this genre to warrant a dedicated forum (at least a named column, and maybe even a dedicated website/sub-website). In terms of $, the ROC is probably among the smallest players here… suggesting the potential for looking closer up this same food chain.

Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y violated the law.  Anyone disagree?  No matter - nothing will happen anyway.  We have the best Congress money can buy.

It’s interesting that a story about a Democrat Congressan doing something wrong would get a big write-up in Yahoo.  I guess someone at Yahoo will get fired over this.

Is this all Doheny and the republicans have?.You want to talk about disgrace,,,,how about how Mr.Doheny treated our local law enforcement when they stopped him in his boat for drinking and driving,on the st.lawrence river a couple of years ago.Everyone in upstate N.Y. knows that Mr.Doheny has money,and we also know how he thinks he is better than the rest of us because of his money.I don’t think Mr.Doheny is the correct choice of candidate to represent us in congress.

@Mike—I was turned on to the story by going through the FARA documents (which we published in the accompanying timeline). They are public documents.
See here for the documents:
http://www.propublica.org/special/taiwan-timeline
I write about foreign lobbying issues fairly frequently and I have also been looking at congressional travel issues. Here’s another recent story in that general area:
http://www.propublica.org/article/details-of-congressional-trips-abroad-a-secret

Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y violated the law.  Anyone disagree?  No matter - nothing will happen anyway.  We have the best ‘Government’  money can buy.

Whether democrat or republican the law was violated.  What I find more troublesome is a story that demonstrates wrongdoing and nothing happens when it is learned. There seldom seems to be any accountability when a member of congress or the senate break the law.  Instead, we get bipartisan comments on what the other party got away with.  The people don’t seem to have any means or say in how our elected officials behave.  They just keep getting away with stuff - over and over.

Good story Justin - even though it won’t mean much anyway.

Let me be sure I am following this correctly… The good congressman VIOLATED the law and then got CAUGHT and then offered a reimbersment… right?
So, if he hadn’t been caught, then he would have “gotten away with it”. But, now that he is CAUGHT, he must cough up $22 Grand in order to get away with it…

Now, my brother-in-law knocked over a local bank… he gave the money back… BUT, he is still doing 8 to 12 in Attica!

It is NO WONDER this bunch of thugs have a 12% approval!

Great piece of reportage, Justin. To me the final nail in Owens’ coffin is the campaign donations: “Park Strategies executives, including King, D’Amato’s brother Armand, and Christopher D’Amato, collectively donated $3,500 to Owens’ campaign. D’Amato’s wife, Katuria, also gave Owens $2,500.” Fiercely partisan Republicans the D’Amatos and Kings giving generously to an obscure upstate Democrat? Implausible, even inconceivable, unless something pretty fishy is going on. These guys never give money unless they’re expecting something pretty sizable in return. Keep after it, Justin. I’ll bet the Owens trip is just the tip of a very dirty big and dirty fish.

ProPublica does the nation a great service by broadcasting such details for once compromised by such behavior, any elected official becomes the plaything of the 0.01% who are the true power behind “the right” no matter which political party’s banner the compromised individual claims.

Greed lies at the core of America’s problems, and greed is a vice that is latent (at best) in almost all Americans. 

The primary attack route upon the integrity of our political system lies in igniting that greed of our legislators through giving them a taste of - and thus a taste for - “the high life”; such is the purpose of free trips to exotic locations.  An ever more luxurious lifestyle is an easy path to take, but going back?  From luxury and the false perception of power that flattery and easy money creates, to less?  Not so easy.  Consequently once you hook them, they’re yours.

Like crack addicts.

“The episode also sheds light on Park Strategies’ work to influence Congress on behalf of Taiwan. The nation is constantly seeking greater military and diplomatic aid from the U.S. in its standoff with China, which considers the island a breakaway territory”

What military or diplomatic aid does Taiwan get from the US?

NOTHING!

I rather hate to do this as (if you think as I do and see a nation’s industrial infrastructure as its true arsenal and reserve) the truth is the American right is working with the communists in the PRC to destroy America’s strategic capabilities while inflicting a mortal wound upon “labor” in America.

But truth is truth…a recent document listing arms sales to Taiwan:

http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL30957.pdf

Arms sales are “aid”?....get real!

Taiwan always pays a premium…and mostly for 2nd hand or obsolete junk.

CongressIsCorrupt

May 12, 2012, 9:51 a.m.

Deja Vu, D’Amato profiting from the revolving door as a lobbyist and characteristically bribing a Congressional member in the not so infamous Jack Abramoff style which as Abramoff and this instance shows continues unabated.

This guy and everyone of his fellow congressman should get 10 years in jail for this type of infraction. I bet it stops then.
It is so sick that, if they get caught then they just pay it back. if they dont get caught, the party rages on.
Then people tur it into a partisan thing. Fact is both parties do it. It is clearly taxpayers against the congress and senate, and we are losing badly.

Thank you for letting the sunshine in.  Good investigating.  Perhaps knowing your watchful eyes are looking, these crooks will think twice before cheating us taxpayers.

Justin -
Speaking of trips to Taiwan, you might also want to look into the upcoming trip being made by former WH Chief of Staff Bill Daley…Da Mayor of Chicago Daleys’ son.

He is scheduled to make a meet-n-greet over there pretty soon.

Ex-Obama top aide to attend May 20 ceremony

“http://chinapost.com.tw/taiwan/foreign-affairs/2012/05/13/340908/Ex-Obama-top.htm”

Hi Justin,

Thanks for writing this story!

Many Taiwanese and I could not figure out how President Ma could possibly have so many American politicians siding with him (and visiting Taiwan at the end of 2011) and then eventually win the Jan. election with his lousy 4-yr performance!  Now we think we know why, at least part of it.

A few Taiwanese media cited your report today - those who are President-Ma-friendly did not of course.

Taiwan still has a long way to go when it comes to corruption and one-party rule, but thank you man!

Well, the proverbial ‘camels nose under the tent’ that doesn’t appear to be mentioned is…these are Democrat party politicians.

Or perhaps more accurately…Career Criminals from the Democrat party.

And, btw, most, as in majority, Taiwanese are very happy with President Ma’s attempts to bring Taiwan into the 21st century and return it to its manufacturing and financial security that it was enjoying until the corrupt Chen Shuei-Bian (A-Bian) family run it into the ground.

Yeah Mr. Gordon,

Manufacturing and financial security of the 20th century with one-party rule is coming back, except NO manufacturing or financial security.  Where the hell are you, in Taiwan or in Heaven?

Corrupt Chen Shuei-Bian?  You want to know that the 18-yr-old Ma had a house in Taipei City center under his name where he invited his high school classmates to before graduation?  And Ma claimed he and his dad, a high-profile government official moved from China after WWII, were/are clean and not corrupted?

Oh btw, Ma’s wife was promoted and got a salary raise AFTER she decided to leave her job at Mega Bank because Ma was elected president and many people wanted her to quit her job to HELP his presidency.  What do you have to say about this?

You understand way too little about the dark side of the Chinese politicians!  Go fetch some books by Chinese Studies scholars on Chinese politics before you mislead people with your brainwashed thoughts.