Murky End to Ethics Cases Lauded by Roskam, Owens

Owens is a Democrat from New York. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Owens is a Democrat from New York. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted November 18, 2013 at 3:48pm

If the evidence in an ethics investigation regarding a Taiwanese trip is not submitted, then you must be acquitted.

The Ethics Committee closed its cases on Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Bill Owens, D-N.Y., on Nov. 15 under less than definitive terms (both cases were closed because the “presently available” evidence was “inconclusive”).  But the two lawmakers reacted to the report as if it were a total absolution of guilt.

“I am pleased this matter has been closed unanimously,”  Owens said in a statement. “As I’ve said all along, I believe my office supplied the committee with all necessary information prior to taking the trip.”

But the House Ethics Committee report actually did rule that the payment for Owens’ trip to Taiwan by a private university, the Chinese Culture University, was “improper,” and that the involvement of private lobbying firm Park Strategies ran contrary to ethics regulations.

“Representative Owens should have known that the trip was not a proper privately-sponsored trip because of the lobbying firm’s continued involvement, which the Committee was unaware of. For this reason, the payments by CCU for Representative Owens’ travel expenses were improper,” the report said.

Owens paid back the more than $22,000 cost of the trip for him and his wife.

As for Roskam, Communications Director Stephanie Kittredge issued a statement that said, “The House Ethics Committee’s unanimous, bipartisan vote to close this case without finding any wrongdoing confirms what Rep. Roskam has said all along — that he and his staff have complied with all laws, rules, and procedures related to privately sponsored travel.”

Roskam’s case did not involve any private lobbying firms, and Roskam didn’t pay back the $24,000-plus cost of his and his wife’s trip to Taiwan. But there was still a question of whether the CCU was, as the Ethics report put it, a “so called ‘money-only’ sponsor.”

Both Roskam and Owens had been in contact with Taiwenese government officials about the trip before deciding that a private sponsor was a better avenue for the travel. Neither lawmaker made the Ethics Committee aware of that fact before asking the panel whether their privately sponsored travel was appropriate.

There are different rules for privately and publicly sponsored travel; publicly sponsored travel would have almost certainly excluded paying for the travel of either members’ wives.

But because neither the CCU nor the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office agreed to cooperate with the Ethics Committee, the panel felt it could not make a determination. Now the committee has closed the cases.

In one particular portion of the report — a portion which Roskam’s office called “most salient” — the Ethics Committee noted that “the differences between these types of travel can be confusing, and which set of rules apply to any particular trip may not be clear, particularly when outside groups are involved.” The committee continued in its report on Roskam:

“While the Committee would hope that Members and staff be alert enough to raise any red flags or abnormalities to the Committee, and thus avoid the need for investigations like these after the fact, without a careful reading of the Committee’s manual and travel regulations, the Members and staff are not normally alerted to this issue. For this reason it is not fair to say that the Members in this circumstance had reason to know that CCU might not be a permissible sponsor, particularly given the Committee’s own difficulty with reaching a conclusion on the question with the available facts and evidence.”