June 5, 2006

Lawmakers took millions in free trips: study

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Members of the U.S. Congress and
their aides took free trips worth nearly $50 million paid for
by corporations, trade associations and other private groups
between January 2000 and June 2005, according to a study
released on Monday.

Some of the 23,000 trips featured $500-a-night hotel rooms,
$25,000 corporate jet rides and visits to popular spots such as
Paris, Hawaii and Colorado ski resorts, said the study, by the
Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and
Northwestern University's Medill News Service.

"In many instances, trip sponsors appeared to be buying
access to elected officials or their advisors," the study said.

While some excursions were legitimate fact-finding
missions, others appeared to have been little more than "pricey
vacations" wrapped around speeches or seminars in which the
lawmaker was joined by family members, the study said.

The data emerged from a nine-month-long review of
congressional travel disclosure forms and coincided with
ongoing federal investigations of political corruption and
efforts to clean up how Congress does business.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges in
January and admitted he showered golf trips, sports tickets and
other gifts on lawmakers in return for actions that would help
his clients.

In response, the Senate and House of Representatives have
voted to toughen ethics guidelines and require greater
disclosure. But critics have charged more needs to be done.

Under a bill passed by the House, members would need prior
approval from the House ethics committee before flying on
corporate jets or accepting privately funded trips.

Lawmakers and their aides can take trips financed by
outside groups to help them learn about issues or to deliver
speeches, such as commencement addresses. Lobbyists may not pay
for congressional trips but can help to arrange them.

Congressional trip sponsors, the study said, included
Microsoft, Time Warner and The Walt Disney Co., along with the
Association of American Railroads.

Tom White, an association spokesman, was quoted in the
study as saying that such getaways "provide an opportunity for
us to discuss our issues with members in an atmosphere where
you are not time-constrained.

"If you try to talk to a member for any great length of
time ... in Washington, they are simply too busy," White said.

Former House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay and his
staffers accepted about a half million dollars in trips during
the period under review -- more than any other congressional
office, the study said.

DeLay resigned as the number two House Republican in the
House and will leave Congress this week,, after he was indicted
of violating campaign finance laws in his home state of Texas.