Counsel to then-ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) colluded with a private foundation to circumvent House travel restrictions in 2007, according to a House ethics report released Friday.
In a separate investigation of the same foundation, Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) then-chief of staff told the Office of Congressional Ethics that Tubbs Jones assigned the aide, Dawn Kelly Mobley, specifically to “find a way to make the conference work” under the more restrictive travel rules implemented that same year.
In its report, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel, admonished Mobley for sharing internal committee e-mails with employees of the Carib News Foundation, a New York-based private foundation.
According to the ethics panel’s report, which examined two trips sponsored by the New York foundation in 2007 and 2008 to the Caribbean and found the travel violated House gift rules because the event received corporate funding, Tubbs Jones assigned Mobley to serve as the “point of contact” for the Carib News Foundation Multinational Business Conference in 2007.
In the accompanying OCE report, investigators wrote that Rangel’s then chief of staff attributed that decision to a desire to continue to allow Members to attend the conference, despite stringent travel rules that limited sponsorship by corporations employing lobbyists.
“He then stated that we’ celebrated when Representative Susan [sic] Tubbs-Jones was made the chair of the Standards Committee in 2007 because she would try to create a way for Members of Congress to continue to attend the conference,” the report states.
The OCE does not record its interviews, and instead records summaries of those meetings. The aide is identified as “Staff Member 1.” At the time the interview occurred in May 2009, George Dalley held that post.
Dalley also told OCE interviewers that Carib News officials told him “that Representative Tubbs-Jones was going to have her counsel, Dawn Kelly-Mobley, find a way to make the conference work. The Members would have a few more hoops to go through but we’ would find a way.”
“Representative Tubbs-Jones would let Ms. Mobley know the conference was a priority and tell her to make it possible,” the report continued.
The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct report states that beginning in September 2007, Mobley provided Carib News employee Patricia Louis with advice on how to answer ethics committee forms required for groups funding Member or staff travel.
In response to a Sept. 18 e-mail from Louis listing the conference’s “sponsors” as Macy’s, Pfizer, American Airlines, Golden Krust Bakery, Caribbean Food Delights, Preferred Health Partners, IBM and AT&T/Cingular, Mobley responded, asking whether she should list Carib News as the “official” sponsor and offering to review the ethics guidelines.
“I understand that several organizations will take part in sponsoring food and other parts of the Antigua travel,” Mobley wrote. “However, I need clarification on the official sponsor, the organization providing travel, lodging, and organizing the trip. Am I to assume it is CARIB NEWS?”
“The official sponsoring organization must not retain or employ a registered lobbyist or registered foreign agent (and the sponsor must have a direct and immediate relationship with the event or location being visited.) To assist with this, I am scanning information/guidelines and emailing in just a moment,” Mobley continued.
Under House rules enacted in 2007, travel sponsors must certify that the trip conforms to the chamber’s rules. Members are not allowed to accept multiple-day travel from private entities that employ lobbyists, but they may accept travel from nonprofit entities that are supported by private companies.
In a Sept. 21 e-mail, Louis responded that the trip would be sponsored by the Carib News Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to disseminating information about the Caribbean and its relationship to the United States.
Nonetheless, Louis listed some of the organizations, including Pfizer, AT&T, IBM, Macy’s and Citibank, as private sponsors on a form submitted to the ethics committee, and a draft agenda for the conference listed organizations as the sponsors of specific events at the conference.
At the same time, Louis and Mobley were also in communication with Peg Olson, an ethics committee attorney assigned to review the travel sponsor application.
After Olson requested additional information via an October e-mail about the agenda and the listed sponsorships, Louis forwarded Mobley, Dalley and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) aide Shelley Thomas the e-mail seeking advice on how to reply.
The ethics committee report indicates Thomas said she was not informed about the rules, and Dalley did not respond. Mobley did respond, however, advising Louis that such co-sponsors could be problematic and potentially limit Member attendance at the event to a single day.
The ethics committee report states Mobley said she was helping Louis to “work through the kink.”
In a subsequent e-mail, Louis wrote Olson: “In response to your email: The sponsors contribute to the overall expenses of the trip and the general work of the [Carib News] Foundation. As a courtesy, each contributor is given an opportunity to be attached to a part of the program that is being presented.”
Olson advised Mobley and then ethics staff director and chief counsel Bill O’Reilly that the event would still fail to meet House rules allowing Members to travel longer than a single day, noting: “it appears that if each sponsor contributes funding directly to the trip (an earmark of funds) and not simply to the general funds of Carib News, then the assumption is that all of these entities are co-sponsors of the trip for the purposes of the House travel rules. … Thus the Committee can’t approve the trip as it currently exists.”
In an e-mail to Olson, Mobley subsequently suggested that Louis, who is Caribbean, did not “understand terminology,” suggesting that she used the word “sponsor” rather than “participant.”
At the same time, Mobley e-mailed Louis, advising her to use the same explanation to the ethics committee.
“I have explained that the organizations you labeled as co-sponsors are not. They support your foundation annually, but have not and will not pay for the Members trip,” Mobley wrote. “This is simply a misunderstanding of the terms sponsor’, contributor’, and participant’ as used in the Ethics rules which is why I sent you the Rules book; for preparation.”
According to the ethics report, during interviews with the ethics investigative subcommittee, Mobley both denied having e-mail communication with Carib News or Louis, and later said she first heard about the foundation when O’Reilly requested that she contact them.
Mobley, who is Rep. Marcia Fudge’s (D-Ohio) chief of staff, did not return telephone calls or e-mails Friday seeking comment.
Although the ethics committee ultimately approved the trip, it ruled Thursday that it had done so based on “false and misleading” information.
The ethics committee exonerated five of the six Members of wrongdoing — Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Christensen. It will nonetheless require the lawmakers as well as Rangel, whom the committee admonished, citing his staff’s knowledge of corporate funding, to repay the costs of the trip.