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Loophole Allows Overseas Trips

Trips to foreign locales such as Saudi Arabia and Canada may be on the rise despite the implementation of new gift and travel rules that prohibit most travel covered by private funding sources.

That’s because a little-known loophole still allows lawmakers and staffers to accept travel underwritten directly by foreign countries through the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, which is enforced by the State Department.

The 1961 legislation, also known as the Fulbright-Hays Act, allows foreign governments that have MECEA agreements with the United States to sponsor all-expense-paid trips to their countries for the purpose of cultural exchange programs.

The program is run by the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, which is managed by Karen Hughes, a longtime adviser to President Bush who recently announced her plans to leave the administration for a second time.

State Department spokeswoman Darlene Kirk said that while the department negotiates the overall agreements, the Congressional ethics committees along with individual Capitol Hill offices and the embassies for various countries approve specific trips.

Kirk said the department currently has 79 agreements with 48 countries (some have more than one agreement). She did not have the number of Congressional trips taken through those deals.

The trips, which outside experts said may now be increasing because of new travel rules, are extremely difficult to track and follow. And they are so low-profile that many government watchdog groups did not know anything about them.

“This is one of the loopholes that has been left alone” under new ethics rules, said Center for Public Integrity spokesman Steve Carpinelli. “It certainly has a lot of potential to be more heavily exploited.”

House and Senate staffers, for instance, do not have to seek MECEA trip pre-clearance with their respective ethics committees, nor are there any limits on the length of the trips or whether lobbyists may help arrange the trips or accompany lawmakers and staffers.

In fact, there may be no documentation of the trip at all except for in the financial disclosure forms of the most senior Congressional staffers. Junior aides who do not have to file disclosure forms would not have to report the trips at all.

Thus, it is hard to tell whether MECEA trips are increasing as a result of the new travel rules, which prohibit privately funded travel by entities that employ lobbyists except when they are for a single day.

Ethics attorney Stan Brand, a former House counsel, said that if the travel is legitimate, then the U.S. government ought to pay for it in order to avoid any perception of conflict.

“If it’s legitimate, and a lot of this travel is, then just have the government pay for it,” Brand said. “But nobody wants to bite that bullet because that’s the dreaded junket charge.”

Brand said the trips could become more problematic if it turns out that formerly private entities are now paying foreign governments to host them.

“If the real party and interest is a private group and they’re just using it as a ruse of palming it off on the foreign government to pay for it … you just have the same problem as you had before under a different name,” Brand argued.

But advocates for the trips stress that they are extremely hard work and do serve an invaluable educational purpose for staffers and lawmakers trying to see a country or a particular issue firsthand.

In 2007, there has been only one MECEA trip reported: A former top staffer to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) went to Saudi Arabia for a week at a cost of $13,100 as part of a “fact-finding” mission for a “bipartisan Congressional study group.” Other staffers also were on the trip, but they will not have to report their travels, if at all, until disclosure forms are due.

In 2006, a staffer for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) reported a weeklong trip paid for by the government of Egypt at a cost of $2,500. The trip was to “discuss matters relating to bilateral relations, mutual security and cooperation.”

The government of the United Kingdom paid for a 2006 trip by an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to meet “leading British scientists and ethicists regarding stem cell research in the UK.”

The embassy of Saudi Arabia declined to comment on its trip, but a Feb. 18 press release on its Web site noted that a “delegation of senior Congressional staffers” met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud al-Faisal and the chairman of the Shura Council, Saleh bin Homaid.

One former aide who participated said it was the first such trip the Saudi government had hosted in some time. The staffer said there was virtually no free time and that the aides were shuttled in bulletproof limos from meeting to meeting with officials such as the minister of interior, the deputy oil minister and members of the Saudi royal family.

The aide said the trip was far from a junket and “completely transformed” him.

“Considering the reputation that goes with these kinds of trips, they wouldn’t take us shopping,” the aide joked. “There’s no wine.”

Jared Brown, a legislative assistant to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), described a one-day MECEA trip to Alberta, Canada, in August 2005.

Brown said purpose of the trip was to view the development of oil from tar sands, a source of alternative fuel that exists in Utah and that Hatch advocated as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

“We’re trying to follow their model,” Brown said.

Brown described the trip as “all business” and said he was only able to fit in a 20-minute trip to the Calgary skate park.