WASHINGTON -- The Kuwaiti government paid more than $66,000 to fly Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., his wife and aides to Kuwait City in early March to view the destruction of that country in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, according to reports made public yesterday.
The trip to Kuwait was just one of more than 30 trips -- both foreign and domestic -- that Mr. Mosbacher has taken over the past 2 1/2 years at the expense of foreign governments or U.S. corporations.
Although President Bush persuaded Congress two years ago to permit all top administration officials to travel at the expense of private corporations, Mr. Mosbacher, a multimillionaire, far exceeds any other Cabinet officer in using this privilege. He also is the only Cabinet officer permitted to travel anywhere at the expense of another government.
Critics have questioned why the Commerce secretary should be allowed to travel at the expense of foreign governments when other top officials are prohibited from doing so on grounds that such trips could undermine their commitment to U.S. interests.
"The bottom line is that government officials should travel at the expense of the U.S. government," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, a citizens' lobby group. "The excuse is that they are saving taxpayers money. But, at what cost?"
Much of Mr. Mosbacher's domestic travel was paid for by corporations and corporate executives who also were major contributors to Mr. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign, in which Mr. Mosbacher served as chief fund-raiser.
In a report filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Mr. Mosbacher said the Kuwait government paid $66,840 to fly him and his entourage to Kuwait City March 13 and back to Washington March 17. He did not specify who paid for accommodations while the delegation was visiting Kuwait City.
Malcolm Barr, Department of Commerce spokesman, said Mr. Mosbacher and his party were among a large group of Americans who traveled to Kuwait City aboard a Kuwaiti government jetliner shortly after fighting in the region had stopped. Mr. Barr said the trip had nothing to do with the Commerce Department's efforts to promote U.S. participation in the rebuilding of Kuwait.
Twelve members of Congress also took part in the trip, but the cost of their travel reportedly was picked up by Fluor Daniel Inc., a division of the Fluor Corp. of Irvine, Calif., and not by the Kuwaiti government.
Department of Commerce officials said Mr. Mosbacher does not accept travel from corporations that have business pending before the department. The officials acknowledged there is no way for him to know if these companies will have business with his department in the future.