Thursday, June 29, 2006

Culture of Corruption: Chapter 739

The Boston Globe reports that a number of Congressmen and Senators accepted food and lodging at a luxurious Cape Cod resort for July 4th weekends - some for a number of years. The stay has been part of an annual seminar where industry representatives discuss legislative issues with members of Congress. The unusual thing in this case is that the obscure non-profit group which legally paid the cost shares staff, an office, phone, fax, and E-mail with a lobbying firm. And it would be illegal for the lobbying firm to pay for the travel:

A lobbyist link in congressmen's visits to Cape
By Michael M. Grynbaum, Globe Correspondent
June 28, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Four Massachusetts congressmen have attended luxurious Fourth of July weekends at Cape Cod's exclusive Wequassett Inn in Chatham with representatives of various interest groups, courtesy of a little-known nonprofit group started by a longtime lobbyist.

The lobbyist, Jeanne Campbell, received millions of dollars in contracts to lobby Congress through her Washington-based firm, Campbell-Crane. Her clients, including several Massachusetts agencies and companies, routinely attend the Fourth of July events.

The trips to the Wequassett Inn, where room rates range from $475 to $1,300 per night, are intended as seminars where industry representatives can discuss legislative issues with members of Congress. But government watchdog groups say they represent a common route around federal lobbying restrictions.

...Invest to Compete shares a southeastern Washington, D.C. townhouse and a fax number and an e-mail address with Campbell-Crane & Associates, a lobbying firm that did nearly $3 million in business representing Massachusetts state agencies, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and the Holyoke Community College Foundation, before Congress over the past five years. Raytheon, the Waltham-based defense manufacturer, also has paid Campbell-Crane for lobbying Congress.

Campbell, one of the lobbying firm's partners, is a founder of Invest to Compete and receives payments from the group to organize the Wequassett getaways. Many of the businesses and agencies that have sent representatives to the July Fourth meetings are current or former clients of Campbell-Crane, according to individuals who were present.

...Under the House's ethics guidelines, registered lobbyists cannot pay for trips taken by members of Congress or their staff . By filing tax forms as a non profit trade association, Invest to Compete is legally separate from Campbell-Crane. Legislation currently pending in the House would also bar lobbyists from arranging or otherwise participating in congressional trips.

Watchdog groups say that lobbying firms have found a way around the current regulations by linking up with nonprofit groups to sponsor travel.

``While these trips don't violate congressional rules, it appears as though they could violate the intent," said Alex Knott, political editor at the Center for Public Integrity, which tracks lobbying activity. ``Right now, a lobbyist could organize the trip, go with the congressman, play a round of golf with them, and then come back to D.C., lobbying them the entire time, and as long as they didn't pay for this out of their own personal funds or their lobby firm's funds, it's not a violation of the rules."

...Nationally, 26 congressmen and senators or members of their staff accepted free travel from Invest to Compete between 2000 and the middle of 2005, for a total of 54 trips. Neal, who received $5,800 in travel costs during that period, ranks fourth on the list. Representative Philip English, Republican of Pennsylvania, and his staff lead the pack with nearly $11,000 in travel expenses during the period, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

This article does not say where Invest to Compete gets its money, but given the close relationship with Campbell-Crane, that has to be your first guess. In my experience, it's common for Members and staff to accept privately-funded seminars like this one, but I think that shell organizations - as 'Invest to Compete' seems to be - are rather rare. To me, this looks like an abuse of a system that is well-intentioned, and usually works better than this.

But again, just another example that Washington scandal knows no partisan distinction. In this case, almost all the Members who traveled with 'Invest to Compete' are Democrats.

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