A public ethics watchdog wants federal ethics investigators to probe a lobbying firm that arranged Rep. Bill Owens' trip to Taiwan.
In a letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics, officials from Public Citizen — including one that helped write the law to help prevent corruption via fancy junkets — request that Park Strategies be investigated.
Founded by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Park Strategies arranged Mr. Owens' trip to Taiwan in late 2011, according to a story in ProPublica. That's an apparent violation of House ethics rules instituted after the lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to prison in 2007 for arranging expensive trips.
Notably, Public Citizen does not call for an investigation into Mr. Owens himself.
A Democrat of Plattsburgh, Mr. Owens claims that no House ethics rules were broken, but said that he would pay back the $22,132 that the trip cost.
"Much to the credit of Rep. Owens, immediately after ProPublica broke the story that the trip may have been illegally arranged by lobbyists, Owens agreed to pay the entire cost of the trip out of his own pocket," the letter, signed by Craig Holman and Lisa Gilbert, notes. "However, no investigation or action has yet been taken against Park Strategies LLC and the lobbyists who were at the heart of the alleged infraction."
A spokesperson for Park Strategies declined to make Mr. D'Amato or other members of the staff available for comment.
In a statement to ProPublica, which broke the news about the most recent development, a spokeswoman said that the trip broke no House ethics rules and that "If the Office of Congressional Ethics elects to pursue an investigation, we will cooperate fully."
The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body, can investigate members of the House or lobbyists and forward those complaints on to the House Ethics Committee, which is made up of members of the House.
Per law, the OCE can't confirm whether it's investigating a lobbying firm of a member of Congress.
Mr. Owens made the trip to Taiwan to discuss defense matters and the possibility of locating a semiconductor plant in Central New York, he said. The trip was paid and sponsored for by the Chinese Culture University. Park Strategies lobbyists who work for the Taiwan government helped organize the trip, including picking a date and sending an itinerary.
Mr. Owens said in an interview from Montreal that his office will be more careful about the trips that he takes. He's paying for the Montreal trip out of his own pocket, he said.
He also added that the check refunding the Chinese Culture University went out yesterday. It was accompanied by a letter saying that questions had been raised about the trip, and that he did not mean to insult their hospitality.
Mr. Owens also said that he spoke with Mr. D'Amato about the situation after the story broke. Mr. D'Amato apologized, Mr. Owens said.
He said that Mr. D'Amato didn't say the firm had done anything wrong. "I think it was more, 'I'm sorry that this happened,'" Mr. Owens said.
Mr. Owens told Mr. D'Amato that the two shouldn't discuss the matter, Mr. Owens said.
"Because any time the company is subject to a potential investigation, you wouldn't want to engage in any substantive discussion about the issue," he said.
Here is the complaint: