Federal contractors, lobbying companies and outside groups spend almost
$1.5 million to sponsor trips for White House employees
White House staffers such as Karl Rove have a lot more options than most ordinary
folks when they want to get away for a while. Whether it's for trips to the
snowy ski slopes of Colorado or the sandy beaches of Key West, plenty of corporations
and other organizations are willing to pick up the tab in exchange for priceless
face time with some of the most powerful people in Washington, D.C.
But Rove, President Bush's closest advisor, is far from alone.
From 1999 to late 2004, more than 620 White House officials have reported receiving
almost $1.5 million in trips from companies and organizations, the Center for
Public Integrity has discovered. These included junkets for such high-profile
officials as Alberto Gonzales, John Podesta, Sandy Berger, Ari Fleischer, Condoleezza
Rice, and Tom Ridge. In all, White House employees accepted trips to more than
350 cities during the final two years of the Clinton administration and the first
four-and-a-half years of the Bush administration.
Take Rove's relationship with Forstmann Little & Co., a big venture capital
firm that paid for his $2,300 trip to Aspen to speak at a swanky annual conference
in September 2002. The event, a three-day gala with an estimated $1 million
price tag, attracts celebrities and well-connected politicos every year to play
golf and dine on gourmet meals.
Fifteen months later, Forstmann Little got much more than the cost of a plane
ticket from the federal government. When the president's Medicare
prescription drug benefit was signed into law, its multibillion-dollar "rural
package" sent millions in additional revenue each year to a select group
of hospital chains. At the time, Rove's trip sponsor owned almost half of the
stock of one of them, Community Health Systems Inc.
Forstmann Little refused to comment on the trip.
The Aspen junket was one of eight trips costing more than a total of $10,000
that Rove took at the expense of outside organizations.
Critics say such travel raises thorny ethical questions. While the amount spent
on trips is sometimes small, the access they provide to power and influence
"These trips are often indirect conduits to influence policy," said
Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog
group. "It does not matter whether it is the legislative or executive branch
with these trips. You run into … situations where influence and money
become closely tied."
Bass said that the disclosure system should be more transparent and administration
officials should take ethics regulations into consideration before accepting
"When you look at the ethics rules, it is a problem when non-government
entities are paying for these trips, especially if they are expecting something
in return," he said.
The federal ethics regulations to which Bass was referring say that agency
officials are not to authorize such travel if "acceptance of the payment
under the circumstances would cause a reasonable person with knowledge of all
the facts relevant to a particular case to question the integrity of agency
programs or operations." But the regulations do not require the traveler
to assess potential conflicts of interest; instead they place the responsibility
for that on the government official who authorizes the trip.
A third of the trips taken by White House officials were paid for by entities
that are registered to lobby the federal government. In all, federal workers
who advise the president accepted free travel from 216 companies and organizations
that have spent more than $1.1 billion lobbying from 1998 through late 2004.
The Center's analysis found that one such sponsor was the AFL-CIO. The labor
union spent more than $26 million lobbying and spent more than $18,000 to fly
White House staffers on trips.
Likewise, drug maker Eli Lilly and Co. spent more than $2,200 on trips while
it spent more than $36 million lobbying. The U.S.
Chamber of Commerce, which has spent more than $200 million lobbying the
federal government, paid for $16,000 worth of White House staffers' trips.
The White House did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this
Lobbying road trips
One of the lobbying organizations paying for White House officials' travel is
the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group representing hundreds
of companies. BIO listed White House lobbying on 84 disclosure reports from
1998 through late 2004 — ranking it 13th on the list of more than 4,000
organizations that have most lobbied the Executive Office. Meanwhile, BIO also
paid for trips for White House officials whose decisions could affect policy
related to the group's interests.
BIO trips sent Dylan Glenn, the former special assistant to President Bush
on economic policy, to San Diego and Toronto. During the first trip, in June
2001, Glenn presented several Bush administration positions BIO members had
long wanted, including:
opposition to additional regulation of genetically modified food and feeds
boosting biotechnology research by increasing the budget of the National
Institute of Health by 13.5 percent to $23 billion for 2002.
Glenn, a frequent traveler from the White House, took 10 trips during 2001
and 2002 worth a total $13,600. While some were to overseas cities such as Hamburg,
and Cancun, Mexico, three others were to his home state of Georgia, where he
ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 8th District in 2004.
Dan Eramian, spokesman for BIO, said that there was nothing objectionable about
the trips. "As far as the two policies go, both parties have favored both
of those policies for the last 20 years, so I don't see where the quid pro quo
comes from," he said.
With respect to opposing more rules on genetically modified organisms, Eramian
said, "these regulations have insured that new products are safe. No one
has ever gotten even a sniffle from GMO products."
Others bankrolling the White House trips receive huge federal contracts and
other funding that is approved by the executive branch. The Rand Corp., a prominent
defense contractor that did $474 million worth of business with the Pentagon
between 1998 and 2003, paid for three trips for staffers of the National Security
Council and the Council of Economic Advisors totaling $2,500 paid directly to
Not only was every dollar of these defense contracts handed out in a no-bid
process, but 99.9 percent were so-called "cost-plus" deals. Cost-plus
contracts are usually preferred by federal contractors over "fixed-price"
contracts because they are given an extra percentage of payment beyond the costs
of each project, essentially guaranteeing a profit.
"The travel reimbursements for officials who spoke at Rand conferences
were approved by the White House," said company spokesman David Egner,
"and the two individuals who made the trips had no role in awarding any
contracts to Rand."
Officials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy received
nearly $57,000 in trips paid for by outside parties; almost $43,000 came from
the World Anti-Doping Agency. A Canada-based international organization formed
after 1998's Olympic doping scandal, WADA investigates the use of performance-enhancing
supplements in sports.
For fiscal 2006, ONDCP requested authorization to pay $2.9 million in dues
to WADA. ONDCP characterized this as a "one-time budget increase from the
FY2005 level," to pay dues for two calendar years, but it still represents
almost quadruple the amount paid in 2004.
While some privately sponsored trips can lead to exciting destinations, others
seem to lead to new jobs. One such instance involved Paul Anastas, the former
assistant director for the environment in the White House Office of Science
and Technology Policy. During his time at the White House, Anastas took 18 privately
sponsored trips to cities across the nation and to six other countries totaling
more than $23,000.
One of the most expensive of these excursions was a four-day trip to Bangkok,
Thailand, in 2002 that was paid for by the American Chemical Society. ACS's
annual revenue is more than $300 million a year and the group lobbies several
Cabinet-level agencies on environmental and budgetary issues. Anastas was lured
away from the White House in 2004 by his trip sponsor to be the director of
an ACS subgroup, the Green Chemistry Institute.
Anastas said that his trips didn't include golf outings or any of the other
high-priced activities associated with some junkets. "Sometimes when you
visit China and Japan on a delegation they will take the entire delegation out
to eat, but beyond that I have not had anything that is considered extraordinary,"
Insisting that there was no quid-pro-quo surrounding his travel, he said, "I
devoted my professional career for the benefit of science and technology for
the environment. I've done it domestically and around the world."
Other instances with the potential for ethical lapses the Center analysis found
James Connaughton is the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental
Quality and helped promote the president's Healthy
Forests Initiative. He took a 2003 trip to the swanky Greenbrier Resort
at White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., with his hotel stay and meals courtesy of
Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers, which supported the Healthy Forests
Restoration Act. The legislation was approved just four months after the
trip. "He was a featured speaker at the meeting," said Mark Barford,
President of the Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers. "His expenses
were primarily covered by the White House. We are a non-lobbying association
and he was there for informational purposes only."
The National Lime Association paid $1,300 for Phil Cooney, former chief
of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to speak
at a 2003 conference in Charleston, S.C. The interest group was lobbying
CEQ on environmental issues including "air pollution requirements."
Three days before the trip, the NLA wrote a letter to the Energy Department
and CEQ volunteering to partner with it in a greenhouse gas emissions-control
program. Hunter Prillaman, a spokesman for the NLA, told the Center that
the invitation was extended after the organization decided to take part
in the program and that there was no quid pro quo involved. Cooney "was
essentially promoting the administration's program," he said. "We
were being urged to take part in this program, and we reimburse the travel
of all our speakers." In June 2005, Cooney resigned from CEQ two days
after The New York Times reported that he had edited some government reports
to downplay the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and higher global
Jeffrey Hunker, former senior director for critical infrastructure for
the National Security Council, accepted trips totaling $7,800 from Internet
Security Systems. The company provides data security for every branch of
the federal government and has spent $620,000 lobbying the federal government
from 1998 through late 2004. It also reported lobbying on government computer
initiatives with the Department of Commerce's Critical Infrastructure Assurance
In August 2003, the Electronic Industries Alliance — a pro-technology
trade group — paid for Chris Padilla from the Office
of the U.S. Trade Representative to go to a conference at the Greenbrier
Resort while it was lobbying the USTR on World Trade Organization negotiations
regarding China scheduled for the next month. Although the WTO did not agree
with the USTR position until February, the Electronic Industries Alliance
sent a letter praising the office's efforts after the September negotiations
Comparing the amounts of outside-sponsored travel of the Bush and Clinton
administrations is impossible because of huge disclosure disparities among various
entities, including the Office
of the Vice President. As the Center reported in a related study, Vice President
Dick Cheney has refused to make any outside travel records public. Instead,
Cheney and his staff appear to have labeled all trips "official travel"
and used untold millions in taxpayer money to cover costs rather than accepting
trip sponsors' funds that the rules would require to be disclosed.
A study of White House officials' travel sometimes also can reveal cozy connections
between outside organizations and the Oval Office.
For instance, the first trip taken by a staffer from the White House Office
of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was paid for by the Texas Fatherhood
Initiative — an organization President Bush helped create with a $416,000
grant when he was the state's governor in 1999.
Only a few months after the trip, Bush made a speech at the National Summit
on Fatherhood and told the group that he had proposed the federal budget include
$315 million over five years in federal programs and grants "designed to