This story was updated on Dec. 17, 2012.
Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., said today that he will personally reimburse a Taiwan university for the $22,132 trip he took to the island with his wife in December.
The announcement comes after ProPublica co-published a story Thursday evening with Politico detailing how lobbyists for Taiwan from the New York firm Park Strategies invited Owens and organized the four-day trip. House rules passed after the Jack Abramoff scandal prohibit members from taking trips arranged by lobbyists.
“In an abundance of caution, and to avoid any question about the purpose of the travel, which was to bring jobs to New York, or about whether it was appropriate for the sponsor to pay for its costs, I am reimbursing the sponsor personally for the full value of the trip,” Owens said in a prepared statement.
Owens said he does not believe the trip, paid for by the Chinese Culture University, broke House rules:
We closely followed the (House) Ethics Committee's process to seek advance approval for the trip, which we obtained. Because the sponsor, the Chinese Culture University, did not employ or retain lobbyists or foreign agents, and because no lobbyist or foreign agent was traveling with me or paying for the trip, we did not understand that our contacts with an agent for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office could affect the trip's permissibility. We made every effort to comply with the standards of conduct and continue to believe that no rules were violated.
The ethics committee has not offered comment in response to calls and emails. As we reported Thursday, Owens mandatory pre-travel filings with the ethics committee did not mention the role of Park Strategies lobbyists organizing the trip.
House rules state: “Member and staff participation in officially-connected travel that is in any way planned, organized, requested, or arranged by a lobbyist is prohibited.”
Documents the firm filed with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act include emails and contact logs showing how firm founder Al D’Amato and vice presidents Sean King and John Zagame spent months organizing the trip with Owens staffers. The lobbyists are registered foreign agents for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington.
Matt Doheny, the Republican challenging Owens in a tight race to represent the newly drawn 21th district in northern New York, released a statement earlier Friday criticizing the trip.
“Bill Owens’ call to lobbyists — who are also, incidentally, campaign donors — to ‘super-size’ his trip is emblematic of everything that’s wrong in Washington,” Doheny spokesman Jude Seymour said in the statement. “We ask our members of Congress to represent our interests. Bill Owens would rather take a $22,000 trip to a foreign country with his wife than find ways to fix this ailing economy and get constituents back to work. We can do much better.”
The Upstate New York Tea Party also released a statement Friday calling on Owens to resign, according to the Albany Times-Union.
TECRO did not respond to requests for comment on Owens’ decision to reimburse the costs of the trip.
Update: Dana Sanneman, executive assistant to Park Strategies founder Al D'Amato, sent this statement to ProPublica Friday afternoon:
Congressman Owens’s trip was reviewed and approved by the House Ethics Committee, and complied with House rules. We have consulted with Counsel who has determined that our limited contact with Congressman Owens and his staff regarding this trip fell well within what is permissible under House rules. We reported and disclosed all contacts with Congressman’s Owens’s office as per our Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) obligations. There was never any attempt to evade or circumvent any law or regulation. In all cases, we complied with the letter and spirit of any and all relevant laws and regulations.
Filings Park Strategies made with the Justice Department show more than 30 contacts between the firm and the congressman and his staff between August and January. Those contacts include emails, phone calls — including one between D’Amato and Owens —and an in-person meeting between King and the congressman in Washington. King, the Park Strategies executive who originally invited Owens on the trip, also corresponded with one of the congressman’s aides while Owens was in Taiwan.
In an interview Friday with North Country Public Radio, Owens acknowledged that “the first impetus for this specific trip” came from Park Strategies.
As for the role of the lobbyists in organizing the trip, he said: "I can tell you from my perspective that I would never engage in that kind of activity again without disclosing it to [the Ethics Committee]," he said.
Update Dec. 17, 2012: The House ethics committee announced Friday it is looking into the lobbyist-organized trip Rep. Bill Owens, D-NY, took to Taiwan last year, which was first reported by ProPublica. House rules forbid most trips organized by lobbyists.
The ethics committee, made up of House members from both parties, said it had received the Owens case in August after a probe by the Office of Congressional Ethics, a separate, independent body made up of former members of Congress and other citizens. (More on the byzantine congressional ethics process here.) The ethics committee said it would announce its next step on the case before Jan. 28. Roll Call notes that the committee will decide whether to launch an investigative subcommittee to look into the trip further; if it does not, OCE’s report on Owens will be released.