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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.

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.

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