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.