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Hometown Makes Ortiz a Frequent Flier

Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) has accepted tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of trips to China from a development corporation in his hometown that he aided by securing earmarks and other federal assistance worth millions of dollars.

Ortiz has also traveled on at least one of these trips with his former chief of staff, Lencho Rendon, who was working for Ortiz when he secured a $5 million earmark for the Robstown Improvement Development Corp. The corporation has now hired Rendon as a consultant. Robstown Improvement is a nonprofit, city-chartered corporation that uses sales tax revenue to try to spur economic development in the city.

Armando Gonzalez, president of Robstown Improvement, said the China trips are part of an aggressive effort on the part of the city of Robstown to lure foreign investment, and that Ortiz, a frequent traveler to Asia, is “the best ambassador of our little town. … He has a lot of relationships that are established there that pretty much open doors for us over there in our business relationships.”

“We’ve invited him a few times to China with us on our trade missions,” Gonzalez said.

On Jan. 2, Ortiz, Rendon and seven other businessmen and local officials flew to China for a nine-day visit sponsored by Robstown Improvement.

The documents indicate that Robstown Improvement paid just over $10,000 for the lawmaker’s transportation, lodging and meals, but Gonzalez said other participants on the trip, including two representatives of private companies, paid their own way.

Ortiz said there is nothing inappropriate about his travel. “It would be inappropriate if it were quid pro quo, but that is not the case here. I’m doing what Members of Congress do: bringing jobs, economic development and industry to my district — and that’s what I have been doing since I was elected to Congress,” he said in an e-mail.

“The Robstown Improvement Development Corporation is not a mere organization, but an arm of the City of Robstown,” Ortiz said. “The House Ethics Committee received my requests for travel with the RIDC to China and the Ethics Committee approved my travel in 2008 and 2009. Each time I am invited by entities or municipalities to trade missions, I try my best to join them in their economic opportunity efforts.”

According to documents Ortiz filed with the House ethics committee, the purpose of the trip was to participate in the signing of a “sister city” agreement and to “establish key users of the facility and open up trade relations for the Robstown Trade Processing and Inland Center.”

Robstown — Ortiz’s hometown — is a city of fewer than 15,000 people located 15 miles inland of Corpus Christi, at the juncture of several major railways and a prime north-south highway. The Robstown Trade Processing and Inland Center is the development corporation’s proposed trade center that would consolidate warehouses, customs processing and inspections for cargo coming into the Port of Corpus Christi and provide centralized access to road and rail transport.

In fiscal 2009, Ortiz obtained a $237,000 earmark for the project, but it appears it was not the first time he secured funding for the center.

The inland center received a $5 million earmark in the 2005 highway bill — also known as the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. While Congress at the time was not required to identify by name the sponsors of earmarks, it seems clear this was an Ortiz earmark. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported at the time that “discussion about the trade center began about 18 months ago, when Robstown mayor Rodrigo Ramon and U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz … began talking about ways to relocate the rail lines that run through the city of Robstown.”

At the time, Rendon was Ortiz’s chief of staff. But in February 2006, Rendon established a consulting firm called LR Group ­— according to his final financial disclosure form filed with the Clerk of the House — and in May 2006 he resigned.

Ortiz told Roll Call that while Rendon “was aware of the inland trade center [while he worked on the Hill], I was the single force behind getting it approved.”

Rendon’s firm, LR Global, is now a consultant to the development corporation. A newspaper article describing plans for the trade center cited LR Global as the source of the information.

Gonzalez said the board hired Rendon last year, and “he is helping us promote all our projects. He is working in Mexico … he is all over the place trying to recruit people to invest in our town.”

Rendon was traveling and unavailable for comment, but a spokesman for LR Global said in an e-mail, “Mr. Rendon is not a consultant for the RTPIC … and he is not earning income from the RTPIC project. Mr. Rendon did retire from Congressman Ortiz’s office in May 2006. Almost 3 years later Mr. Rendon was hired by the Robstown Industrial Development Corporation to help promote economic development. No federal or state funds from the RTPIC project are used to pay for Mr. Rendon’s consulting services.”

In December, Ortiz, a 14-term lawmaker, announced that through his efforts, the inland center had received a $4 million grant from the Department of Commerce to construct water system infrastructure for the center. Gonzalez said the city is still completing a feasibility study for the trade center, but it has purchased a large parcel of land where officials hope to begin construction.

Ortiz, who sits on the Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, has been a regular traveler to China; previous news reports have indicated he has made more than 40 trips to China and Taiwan during his tenure in Congress. In 2004 alone, he and Rendon made four 10-day trips to Asia paid for in large part by various business groups, according to documents on file with the Clerk of the House.

His 2009 financial disclosure form indicated that he took two trips to China in 2008 sponsored by the Robstown development corporation, but he did not file travel disclosure documents with the House ethics committee for those trips. A press release from a solar cell manufacturing company called China Sunergy indicated that a 12-person delegation including Ortiz visited the company’s Nanjing facilities in April 2009, but Ortiz has not filed travel disclosure forms for that trip either.

Ortiz said he believed that since the Robstown group was a municipal entity, he was not required to file disclosure forms. He sent Roll Call travel itineraries indicating that the trips involved visits to several manufacturing facilities and meetings with Chinese business executives.

Members are not required to file disclosure forms for travel sponsored by state or local government entities, and the development corporation is a city-sponsored economic development entity.

In preparation for the 2010 trip, Mayor Ramon sent an invitation to Ortiz noting, “The City of Robstown has recently received information from a Beijing delegation expressing their interest in investing in the RTPIC and have offered to other potential investors during our visit to Beijing. A Chinese solar panel manufacturing company has begun the process to relocate their company to Robstown. As you can see, our missions to China are paying off and thus we are eager and excited about the next trip.”

According to the itinerary of the trip on file with the Clerk of the House, the group spent a day and a half in Beijing meeting and dining with “investors,” and spent two days touring industrial facilities of an electric vehicle manufacturer called Zytech Solar and a wind turbine company called Aerodyne.

Both companies are actually part of a single Spanish company, Zytech, which has divisions in Germany, China, France, Mexico and Palo Alto, Calif., according to its Web site.

Gonzalez said, “We went to China because that’s where their manufacturing facility is located. We went to see the manufacturing plant for Zytech and Aerodyne both. That was one of the reasons that we were over there.”

“We are just trying to get people to come over and invest in our town,” Gonzalez said. “Given the climate where Obama is pushing green energy, we have been real aggressive in that area as well. … We are trying to bring that industry back to America.”

Roll Call reported in 2008 that Ortiz and Rendon each invested thousands of dollars in a Chinese telecommunications project in 2005 with a Texas businessman whose company paid nearly $20,000 to fly them to China.

Ortiz said then that his investment was completely unrelated to the trips the company paid for and that he made no attempt to use his personal influence to advance his own investments.

There is no indication that Ortiz has made any other personal investments in Chinese projects.

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