by Justin Elliott, ProPublica
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.
Neither TECRO nor Park Strategies immediately responded to requests for comment on Owens’ decision to reimburse the costs of the trip.