The controversy over lobbyist-funded Congressional travel has brushed yet another Member.
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) took a five-day jaunt to Miami in February. The original travel disclosure Dicks’ office filed with the House Clerk listed the sponsor as the Spectrum Group, a defense lobbying firm in Alexandria, Va.
That would be a violation of House Rules. And in recent days, Dicks’ office has appended two “corrections” to its initial filing.
The upshot is that Dicks, who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense and the Homeland Security panel, has decided to pick up the $985 tab.
That response is not satisfactory to one leading ethics watchdog.
“Reimbursing a lobbyist is not an acceptable option,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It’s the concept that everybody does it — but that isn’t an excuse.”
Lobbyists and lobbying firms are prohibited from funding Congressional travel for Members or staff, even if they later get reimbursed by an entity that is allowed to pay, such as lobbyists’ clients, including corporations and trade associations.
One GOP lobbyist said the rules governing travel are very clear and that most lobbying firms that help plan Congressional trips for their clients follow the rules.
“The rules are very clear that a lobbyist can’t pay for anything and get reimbursed. The House ethics committee went to the trouble to publish a book on this,” the lobbyist said. “If they don’t know, it’s their fault. They should read the rules. It just takes a little bit of research.”
Ethics lawyer and lobbyist Brett Kappel of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease said Dicks has “now done what he’s required to do, which is to find out whether the trip was paid for inappropriately. Once you’ve made that determination, the best you can do to mitigate the violation is pay for the trip yourself. Under the circumstances, he’s tried to do the right thing.”
Kappel added that, in this situation, “I doubt the ethics committee would issue a serious sanction if it was a single incident. Someone who has committed multiple violations of the same rule, however, is likely to get a significant sanction.”
On April 27, Dicks’ press secretary, George Behan, said that Dicks had filed an amended travel report that changed the name of the trip’s sponsor from Spectrum to Raydon Corp., a Dayton Beach, Fla.-based client of Spectrum that makes military training simulators.
Gregory Sharp, president of the Spectrum Group, did not return multiple phone calls last week. A Raydon spokesman said he would look into the trip but did not follow up.
On April 27, Behan also said that one of Dicks’ staffers made the change “when she saw the reimbursement come in from Raydon.”
But he later contradicted that.
That first amended travel report had not yet been entered into Dicks’ travel file at the House Legislative Resource Center as of April 28, but a faxed copy of it provided by Behan listed the same details as the original disclosure except for the switch from Spectrum to Raydon.
When Dicks signed the amended report, he dated it April 26.
Then, on April 28, Behan said that Dicks “has since sent another correction to the clerk saying he has chosen to pay for the trip himself.”
Behan added that after rereading the ethics rules and looking into the February trip, Dicks realized that his lodging and meal costs had been paid for by Spectrum “without his knowledge.” So Dicks decided to pick up the tab himself.
Also on April 28, Behan provided a faxed copy of a letter, dated April 26, from Dicks to Jeff Trandahl, the Clerk of the House.
In the letter, Dicks wrote, “I have subsequently decided to pay for the trip myself and have reimbursed the Spectrum Group for meals and lodging expenses totaling $571.00. I also paid for my transportation costs and returned a check to Spectrum for reimbursement totaling $414.41.”
According to the original travel disclosure, the purpose of the trip was to visit the Association of the United States Army Conference to view convoy trainees, “up-armored HMMWV trainers, table top trainer and virtual soldier and trainers for the Abrams & Bradley fighting vehicles.”
Behan said at the time of the trip, Dicks and other Members were working on a Defense supplemental bill, which included funding for such items as up-armored HMMWVs, more commonly known as Humvees. Behan added that he doesn’t expect any fallout from this recent trip that would curtail any of Dicks travel in the future.
“He prefers to go out and see things in the field,” Behan said of his boss.
According to Spectrum’s Web site, the firm is recognized “as one of the premier consulting groups in the Nation’s Capitol” and “is a dynamic alliance of individuals from diverse military, political and professional backgrounds united to provide a full range of client services.”
The firm’s practice areas include defense, homeland security and base realignment and closure matters, the site says.
Sloan, of the ethics group, said the Dicks trip is just part of a larger problem of Members and staffers not “paying attention to the travel rules.”
“It’s becoming clear that there needs to be mandatory review” of travel disclosures, she said. “They should be reviewed by the ethics committee. It’s not the rules that are the problem, it’s the process.”