Congressional frequent fliers raise major ethical questions

July 24, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- As the House ponders proposals to reform the wretched excesses of financing political campaigns, many of the good legislators have continued a time-honored practice that taints the political process just as much.

It's the willingness to accept free travel from private sources. According to a computerized check by the Center for Responsive Politics of travel disclosure forms that must be filed with congressional ethics committees, members of Congress in 1997 rolled up a collective bill of $6.4 million for various junkets at home and abroad.

According to congressional rules, such travel must be related to congressional business. But, occasionally, those rules are stretched.

Exhibit A is a four-day trip to London taken by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife in December 1997, ostensibly to make a speech, with the Atlantic Richfield Co., known as ARCO, picking up the tab to the tune of $33,141.20. Of that amount, $20,268.55 was listed as transportation expense, $12,235.12 for lodging and $637.53 for meals.

From these figures, it is clear that the speaker and his spouse did not fly coach class and did not stay at a Motel 6. Indeed, according to an ARCO spokesman in Los Angeles, they flew to London in a company plane and returned on the supersonic Concorde, which British Airways reports costs $5,456 each way per passenger. And they were holed up at Claridge's, one of London's snootiest addresses. Compared to the travel and lodging costs, the tab for meals was modest, suggesting maybe that they ate the in-flight food going and coming and breakfast was included at the hotel.

Al Greenstein, the company's spokesman, said Mr. Gingrich spoke at ARCO's annual dinner for European business leaders, which "has great value in enhancing our company's reputation abroad." Previous speakers, he says, have included former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Also, Mr. Gingrich met with the ARCO chairman, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Gingriches stayed four days because "they had to overcome jet lag," Greenstein said. ARCO also provided free transportation and lodging for two Gingrich aides, at an added cost of $9,000.

This little trip was one of four that Mr. Gingrich took at somebody else's expense in 1997, the Center for Responsive Politics search reported. The cost of the four totaled $44,428, making the speaker the chief on-the-cuff congressional traveler for the year.

Runner-up was an eight-term Republican from Ohio, Rep. Michael Oxley, who had others pay $36,957 for his 13 trips. The most frequent travel-for-free members of Congress in 1997 were two presidential hopefuls, Republican Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, who made 20 such trips costing $26,189 and Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who made 17 costing $14,870.

Mr. Gingrich himself continues to keep the door open to a presidential bid in 2000. As a politician who has already had run-ins with the House Ethics Committee and has had his wrist slapped by it, you might think he would have avoided running up a $33,000 tab for making a single speech that had a dubious connection to the conduct of congressional business. But Mr. Gingrich never has been one to worry much about appearances.

The speaker's press aide is quoted in the Washington Post as saying "all travel of this nature has and will continue to be approved by the Ethics Committee." But Ted Van Der Meid, chief counsel of the committee, says "approval isn't quite the right word." He says Mr. Gingrich was advised by letter about what was and wasn't appropriate, and the trip was reviewed with Mr. Gingrich's office and ARCO officials beforehand. But nothing was said or done when the report came in showing a "special" interest had shelled out more than $33,000 for the Gingriches to spend four days in London.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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