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Weller Trip in 1999 Raises Questions

Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, took a trip to Louisiana in mid-1999 that may have been paid for by former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. If Abramoff did in fact pick up the tab for the trip, that would be a violation of House ethics rules.

Weller travelled to Lafayette, La., on June 11-13, 1999, according to disclosure forms submitted by Weller to the Clerk of the House. The sponsor of the trip listed on the forms was Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds. The cost of the trip was $1,640, including meals.

Under House ethics rules, registered lobbyists or lobbying firms cannot pay for travel by lawmakers or Congressional staff, even if later reimbursed by an entity that is able to legally fund the trip, such as a nonprofit group.

Officials at Preston Gates said they had no record of the trip at all. “Based on a few hours of review of documents in response to Roll Call’s inquiry, we do not believe that the firm paid for a trip by Congressman Weller to Louisiana,” said a statement from the company on Monday night.

However, Abramoff worked for Preston Gates until early 2001, when he moved to Greenberg Traurig, and a source familiar with the situation said it likely involved Abramoff.

Several media outlets, including The Washington Post and Associated Press, have disclosed that Abramoff sought reimbursement for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses he ran up in covering the costs of lawmaker and staff trips. Preston Gates did not have any such records for the Weller trip.

In a statement released by his office, Weller also was unable to provide any information on the trip, such as why he went to the Bayou State or what groups or organizations he may have met with there.

“As for now, we continue to look into the particulars behind this trip,” Telly Lovelace, a Weller spokesman, said in a statement on Monday. “Congressman Weller filed the appropriate paperwork with the Clerk of the House. In his cover letter, he acknowledged that due to a personnel error, there was a delay in filing the disclosure form.”

Lovelace added: “More than six years have passed and neither Congressman Weller or anyone on his staff have been contacted by the House ethics committee in regards to any wrongdoing involving this or any other trips.”

Similar questions have been raised about whether Abramoff funded trips for other lawmakers, most notably House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), to such locales as the United Kingdom, Russia and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific.

Weller, now in his sixth term, did not file a travel disclosure form on the Louisiana trip until January 2000, which in itself is a violation of travel rules; such trips are to be disclosed within 30 days of the trip.

In a Jan. 12, 2000, letter to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), then the chairman of the House ethics committee, Weller apologized for his belated filing of the travel form, and he asked Smith if there were any briefings for staffers to help them learn about travel disclosure requirements.

In the January 2000 letter to Smith, Weller also confirmed that Preston Gates was the sponsor of the trip. “The completed form is enclosed and correct to the best of my knowledge after consulting with the requesting firm, Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, LLP,” Weller wrote.

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