by Justin Elliott, ProPublica.
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.