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Traveling Executive Class

Posted in the database on Saturday, December 10th, 2005 @ 07:29:44 MST (1551 views)
by Alex Knott    The Center for Public Integrity  

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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 is large.

"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 such gifts.

"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 report.

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, Germany, 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 those offices.

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," he said.

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 include:

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 temperatures.

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 Office.

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 took place.

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 strengthen fatherhood."

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