ProPublica, an online investigative news outlet, published a story Thursday evening that questioned the ethics of Rep. Bill Owens' trip to Taiwan in December.
Sean Magers, a spokesman for Mr. Owens, said that the trip was in "full compliance" with House ethics rules: "Congressman Owens filed all the necessary paperwork with the House Ethics Committee and conducted the trip with their approval. The trip was planned through significant communication with the embassy of Taiwan, and we believe it was conducted within full compliance of House rules.”
The trip, ProPublica says, was "organized" by lobbyists for Taiwan's government, in possible violation of House ethics rules that were put in place after the Jack Abramoff scandal.
(There is some bipartisanship here: The lobby firm was Park Strategies, founded by former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. The son of current Republican Rep. Peter King was involved in organizing the trip.)
We only learned of the trip after an article appeared in the Taiwanese media.
UNYTEA calls for Owens to resign:
Meanwhile, in more politics, the Upstate New York Tea Party, which swipes at Mr. Owens pretty much any chance it gets, has called on him to resign.
"My congratulations to Mr. Owens, he has transformed himself from hometown boy into a corrupt Washington politician,” UNYTEA Chairman Mark Barie said in a news release.
As you may know by now, there's no love lost between UNYTEA and Mr. Owens.
Holman weighs in
Craig Holman, an official with Public Citizen who helped draft the ethics rule that Mr. Owens' trip may have broken, called on the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate the matter.
The OCE is an outside agency created by the 2007 post-Abramoff law.
Mr. Holman said that it's pretty unambiguous that a rule was broken, and that Public Strategies, the D'Amato firm, probably knew that they were breaking it.
What's less clear is what Mr. Owens and his staff knew — and that's what Mr. Holman wants ethics investigators to figure out.
"It isn't entirely clear that Bill Owens knew what was going on, although he was the beneficiary of breaking the ethics rules," Mr. Holman told me.
Indeed, emails obtained by ProPublica indicate that an Owens staffer believed that the trip was in the ethical clear.
"They could have reasonably assumed it was part of (a cultural exchange program) without realizing that the whole thing was being arranged by a lobbying firm here in the U.S.," Mr. Holman said. "However, we don't know. Until the ethics committee does an investigation, we have no idea how much Bill Owens and his staff were aware of or should have known."
Mr. Holman said that this was, indeed, a "serious infraction."
"This is a big deal because the travel rules were passed in response to the type of corruption that we saw with Jack Abramoff flying people to Scotland to play golf,” he said.
Mr. Holman noted that $360 daily meals, $520 per night hotel stays and first-class plane tickets aren't something that he, as somebody who is not a congressman, could fit into his budget.
As the ProPublica story notes, Park Strategies was working to get U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican, to make a trip to Taiwan.
And the Rome Sentinel reported at the time of the trip that Rep. Richard Hanna, R-Barnveled, had been in contact with Mr. Owens about his trip to Taiwan, and that: "I am pleased that the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recognized the concerted effort of New York State to make a world class site available for the fabrication of next generation computer chips right here. ... I will continue to work on a bipartisan basis with my upstate colleagues, as well as the president and Governor Cuomo, to bring economic development and the jobs it represents to the people of Oneida County and our entire region."
Doheny weighs in
Jude Seymour, a spokesman for Mr. Owens' Republican opponent on Nov. 6, said in a statement that the report was "troubling."
"We ask our members of Congress to represent our interests," the statement read in part. "Bill Owens would rather take a $22,000 trip to a foreign country with his wife than find ways to fix this ailing economy and get constituents back to work. We can do much better."
No taxpayer dollars
I'll add quickly here that this was not, as some commenters elsewhere have suggested, a matter of taxpayer dollars at stake. No taxpayer dollars were harmed in the making of this trip to Taiwan, that we know of.
Here is the full statement from Mr. Owens. Pay close attention to the words "continue to believe no rules were violated" and "reimbursing the sponsor personally for the full value of the trip."
“Job creation has been and continues to be my top priority for New York. With that goal in mind, I had the opportunity last year to visit Taiwan and meet with representatives from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp (TSMC), a high-tech company that is considering opening a manufacturing facility in Upstate New York. If this facility comes to fruition, it has the potential to create hundreds, if not thousands of good paying jobs in the region. Along with other meetings, I met with the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce and promoted investment and job creation in Northern New York via the EB5 Program, which allows foreign investors in the US economy to obtain U.S. visas.
We closely followed the Ethics Committee's process to seek advance approval for the trip, which we obtained. Because the sponsor, the Chinese Culture University, did not employ or retain lobbyists or foreign agents, and because no lobbyist or foreign agent was traveling with me or paying for the trip, we did not understand that our contacts with an agent for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office could affect the trip's permissibility. We made every effort to comply with the standards of conduct and continue to believe that no rules were violated.
Still, I hold myself and my office to the highest of ethical standards. In an abundance of caution, and to avoid any question about the purpose of the travel, which was to bring jobs to New York, or about whether it was appropriate for the sponsor to pay for its costs, I am reimbursing the sponsor personally for the full value of the trip”
More on this as it becomes available.
Here are the ethics forms that Mr. Owens' office submitted, which approved the trip. As ProPublica notes, there is no mention of lobbying firm Park Strategies, which is the subject of contention.