Journalism in the Public Interest

Watchdog Group Calls for Probe of Lobbyists Behind Congressional Trip to Taiwan

Public Citizen calls for investigation into whether Al D’Amato’s lobbying firm violated House travel rules by organizing a trip for Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY) and his wife.


Former New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato. (File photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images file photo)

A government watchdog group is asking the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate a lobbying firm that organized a $22,000 trip to Taiwan for Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY) and his wife in December.

Two officials from Public Citizen sent a letter today to the chief counsel of the ethics office requesting an investigation into whether Park Strategies broke House travel rules by organizing the trip for Owens, who enjoyed $500-a-night luxury hotels during his stay. The letter cites a May 10 ProPublica story, co-published with Politico, that revealed the lobbyists’ role in the trip.

Park Strategies, which is a registered foreign agent for Taiwan, was founded by former Senator Al D’Amato of New York. The lobbyists involved in planning the Owens trip include D’Amato; John Zagame, a former aide to the senator; and Sean King, the son of Rep. Peter King (R-NY).

The day after the ProPublica story was published, Owens announced he would reimburse the full cost of the trip to the sponsor, the Chinese Culture University.

Owens is facing a tight reelection race in northern New York district, and the trip hasn’t helped. The campaign of Republican challenger Matt Doheny criticized Owens for the travel and the Post-Star in Glen Falls recently editorialized that it is “appalled” by the episode.

“Much to the credit of Rep. Owens, immediately after ProPublica broke the story that the trip may have been illegally arranged by lobbyists, Owens agreed to pay the entire cost of the trip out of his own pocket,” the Public Citizen letter says. “However, no investigation or action has yet been taken against Park Strategies LLC and the lobbyists who were at the heart of the alleged infraction.”

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

Park Strategies emails filed with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show the firm invited Owens on the trip and spent four months organizing it in coordination with Taiwanese government officials. The sponsor of the trip reported to the House Ethics Committee was the Chinese Culture University.

Both Owens and Park Strategies have said they believe the trip did not violate congressional rules.

The Public Citizen letter notes that, “Under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) of 2007, lobbyists and lobby registrants, as well as private sponsors of officially-connected travel, have been made liable for misrepresenting the nature of trips or otherwise encouraging or causing violations of congressional ethics rules.”

The group asks the Office of Congressional Ethics look into at least three questions:

1. Did Park Strategies, LLC, and its lobbyists play a principle role in initiating, organizing and arranging this trip, in violation of House Rule XXV?

2. What was the source of the $22,132 used to pay for the trip?

3. Did Park Strategies, LLC and its lobbyists violate their oath provided under Section 5(d) of the Lobbying Disclosure Act by encouraging a violation of congressional ethics rules?

Created in 2008, also in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, the Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent entity that reviews allegations of misconduct against members of the House or staff. The office, which is governed by an eight-member board of private citizens, can write public reports and make recommendations for further investigation to the House Ethics Committee. The ethics committee, in turn, is composed of members of Congress and can make recommendations of disciplinary action to the Full House.

In response to the Public Citizen letter, Park Strategies spokeswoman Dana Sanneman sent this statement:

Congressman Owens' 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' 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. If the Office of Congressional Ethics elects to pursue an investigation, we will cooperate fully.

Thank you Pro Publica - I love you.  Keep after those #@%^& government parasites who call themselves Congressmen.  We definitely need term limits in congress - public service should not be a lifetime career!
Would like to know how to start a constitutional amendment for term limits.  Things have gotten out of control.

I’m a dem and hope Owens loses so some other corrupt candidate can take his seat and game the system. D’Amato founded the foreign lobbying firm? Sure! Why not? Probably wears enough body armor to evade scrutiny and skate away while Owens falls on his sword.

Meanwhile the primary abuses by lobbyists, that they are industry-paid AUTHORS of proposed legislation which purports to represent the interests of constituents/American people, goes on and on and on and .........

Nonna: So agree with you!! Term limits and campaign finance/lobby reform!!
My cursory google search yielded
and,  “Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. David Schweikert have introduced a constitutional amendment (SJR 11 and HJR 71, respectively) limiting congressional terms in the Senate and House.”

Watchdog group my - - -. Bunch of progaganda pushers.  I don’t believe any of this and I would bet Doheny and his money is behind it all. A lot of people have forgotten the situation the Republican Party has put us in I haven’t!!

We have term limits, they are called elections. In ancient Athens, judges, who were kind of like their executives, could serve ONLY one, one year term.  That was it! In California we have term limits for the state office holders and legislators. Has backfired somewhat in that an office holder spends much of their time preparing to run for somethng else. Term limits are not all they are cracked up to be.

There have been several times that occurred in which an incumbent is has actually broken the laws but because he/she knows how to please his/her constituents with political favors, he/she gets voted back in - to the detriment of the whole community.  So much for elections.  We just are told elections offer term limits. Don’t buy into that myth.  Term limits are far from perfect - but if the term offers enough time to do good and not enough to corrupt - then we have some hope.

Hey Bev….If he didn’t do something wrong why do you think he offered to pay for the trip out of his pocket.  Sounds like a shoplifter offering to pay for the stolen goods only after he’s caught…oh yeah, why was it that he went?...Maybe he was developing a relastionship to export milk to taiwan….......Looks like a hand in the cookie jar to me….

Term limits are not constitutional.  If you dont like your public representatives, vote against them.  If you dont like MY public representatives, you’ll have to move here - then you’re welcome to vote against them, but not until then.

Woodrich - Term limits are not now constitutional, but not sure of why that can’t change.  If enough people want them, the people can make changes (I still believe).  Sure I can vote against my congressman, etc., but the odds of his/her being booted out are small - as there are many who don’t vote, or others who somehow benefit by earmarks, etc. given by the lawmaker and will keep voting for him regardless how corrupt, inefficient, etc.a congressman is. In theory voting out legislators sounds good.  The devil is in the details

John (well, other John), while the way to bet with politicians is “doing something wrong,” it’s possible that he’s paying back the money to show good faith.  That is, he may think he did nothing unethical or against the spirit of the law, but is paying it back to make a hundred and ten percent sure he’s not violating the letter of the law along the way.

I doubt it, because the nature of politics isn’t exactly modesty and public service, but it’s possible.

But, it’s also possible that he’s rushing to “make amends” because it’s Taiwan, and we can’t be pissing off our good Trans-Pacific Commie buddies when they do all our manufacturing enriching our biggest companies.  Recognize Taiwan as a real country, and we might actually have to hire American workers for something!

Woodrich, I think you’re wrong.  The Constitution is silent on the terms servable by a Congressman, as far as I can see, meaning that a law can be passed at either the State or the Federal level to impose any rules.  The Apportionment Act of 1911 shows clearly that Congress thinks it can change its own nature without appealing to the Constitution.

Not that such a thing would pass, of course.  Congressmen aren’t going to pass laws to limit their powers (see above on the nature of politicians), and state legislators and governors are mostly aspirants to the cushy Congressional jobs.  Oddly, this appears to include Constitutional Conventions, which need to happen through the state governments as applications to Congress.

I’m not sure I understand what would be gained by imposing term limits.  With term limit voters loose the right to keep representative they like, and who represent them well.  They also make serving in office a temp job where all of our representatives are rookies who have to leave when their experience allows them to be most effective at their job.  The lobbyists will be seasoned veteran, working the system for the interest they represent, while we are represented by the rookies only team.  And worst of all, our representative will be forced to give consideration to what they will do once they are forced from office.  Public service will become just a step on a career path to something else, such as lobbying or working for companies they endear themselves to by pushing legislation that gives them advantage. 

I have a different take. 

Wikipedia defines bribery as “an act of implying money or gift giving that alters the behavior of the recipient”.  Since it is a lobbyist’s job to influence public officials, any money or favors rendered by a lobbyist should be considered a bribe.  It should be a prosecutable crime for them to give money or do favors for politicians and it should by an impeachable offense for a politician to accept any money or favors from lobbyist.  The fact that lobbyist give money to politicians to influence them is obvious to everyone, the politicians, the public, and of course the lobbyist who wouldn’t be giving the money if they weren’t pretty sure they were getting something in return.  Under our current system the parties only put people on the ballet who are good at raising money.  The ones that are good at raising money are the ones that the lobbyist feel they can count on to push their agenda.  We never get the opportunity to vote for anyone who is genuinely interested in representing the country and its people because they never get on the ballot.  Until we put a firewall between politicians and lobbyists we will not be represented.

...and yet, not a SINGLE, comprehensive “investigation” into the multiple millions of TAXPAYER dollars being spent by the Obamas for their multiple vacations to exotic locales or for their quarter-milllion-dollar “date nights” to Broadway shows, bi-weekly gala parties at the White House with dozens of the Hollyweird glitterati in attendence or even for Obama’s campaign trips thinly disguised as “promotional conferences” taken all around the country—again at the cost of multiple millions of unreimbursed tax money!  If you people didn’t have a double standard, you’d have no standards whatsoever.

daitaulo -
You mean like Obama promised everyone to “do away with, once and for all, the influence of lobbyists in the White House” and then immeidateley proceeded to populate the White House staff with lobbyists and allow favored lobbyists unprecedented (and unequaled) presidential access?  Restrict lobbyists activities legally and it won’t matter if most Congress-critters are “rookies.”  Term limits will prevent Congressmen and women from setting up little fiefdoms designed to guarantee their continued reelection to the detriment of the country’s interests…which do NOT include redistribution of wealth, class warfare or turning the country into their idea of a socialist “utopia.”

What does NYS have that Taiwan and China may want access to? The largely untapped Marcellus Shale region.

daitaulo, while I don’t know whether or not I agree with term limits, the theory behind it is that a limited run takes the focus on reelection campaigns and allows the elected officials to do what they think is right, rather than what they think will get them a campaign donation.  It also reduces the possibility of machine politics.

As I said, I’m not sure which is better.  What I’d rather see (limits or no) is to publically review elected officials at the ends of their terms.  If anything is at all suspicious (by which I mean doesn’t benefit the country as a whole), it should be put to criminal trial with high stakes.

Pappadave, the difference between Obama’s trips and this should be obvious:  There’s no chance of corruption in the Obama case, because taxpayer money carries zero weight in Washington.  Only tax-dodgers and foreign nationals can influence policy.

I’m going to take a chance here and assume that last, hilarious remark was sarcasm, John.  Still, you’re at least partly right about it.  Taxpayers’ money does NOT mean anything to Washington.  After all, none of them working there have the least respect for it and waste it every opportunity that presents itself.

More gallows humor than sarcasm, but yes.

But the point does stand, I think.  Owens is in the spotlight because his “vacation” might have been a bribe to, say, vote against sanctions for human rights abuses.  That’s the problem with the “educational” exemption:  The old saying is that we have education, they have propaganda, and that’s an important distinction when the subject is our lawmaker.

I won’t say it’s not bad to waste money for personal benefit, obviously, but it’s certainly lower priority and old news.  Remember, it wasn’t even big news when we found out (twenty years ago?) that Congress had full-time barbers pulling a great salary, just in case someone needed an emergency haircut.

...or, when we found out about that time that Congress had it’s own “bank” and “post office” which the Democrats had authorized so they could use both as a money-pit where they could mine extra cash when they thought they needed it.

I just added my name to “Restart Congress” - a term limits advocacy group.  It proposed 3 terms for HR and two for Senate.  That should be enough to benefit from a well-intentioned congressman.  Congress is not a life time job - corruption sets in too fast

Efforts to impose term limits on congress go back as far as I can remember, and they’ve all fizzled. Given the dismal level of educated concerned voters here and MSM coverage in this country,  I’m cynical enough to believe the current crop will also wither - unless corporate interests decide it’s to their advantage to turn it into a reality.

The Citizen’s United decision, of course, throws a wrench into the campaign process by automatically giving GOP (corporate funded) candidates a formidable edge in advertising (conditioning voters), and no means exist to prevent a pre-purchased candidate from running for office.

The only way we can curb (never eliminate) abuses of power and create an even playing field is to remove ALL of the factors which lead to self-enrichment. Lobby reform, campaign finance reform (which includes overturning Citizen’s United), and impose term limits.

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