Sarbanes a frequent flier on free think-tank trips Senator's tab is high, but trips do not appear to pose conflict of interest

October 18, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Among the high-fliers in Congress, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes ranks right near the top. The Maryland Democrat has run up a bigger tab for travel at the expense of others than all but one of his peers.

The cost is mostly paid by think tanks and civic groups, not corporate fat cats. But it's free to Sarbanes, nonetheless.

Sarbanes and his wife, Christine Sarbanes, traveled last year courtesy of private groups to Dresden, Germany; Barcelona, Spain; Manalapan, Fla.; and twice to Athens and Salonika in Greece. All told, the cost last year for his freebie travel, including food and lodging, reached $27,000.

Only one other senator -- William V. Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican who heads the Finance Committee -- ran up a bigger total for travel on someone else's tab than Maryland's senior senator, according to a watchdog group.

Sarbanes declined to comment on the matter, but a spokesman said there was nothing inappropriate about such travel.

"This provides him an opportunity to get away from the legislative machine, so to speak, to sit down, learn about policy and have an exchange for an extended period," said the spokesman, Jesse Jacobs.

Sarbanes believes that such extensive travel enhances his ability to carry out his work on committees that oversee foreign affairs and international banking issues, Jacobs said.

As senators and representatives have grudgingly given up accepting fees for speeches and most other outside income this decade to meet new ethics guidelines, lawmakers' travel financed by outside groups has received closer scrutiny.

Sarbanes' trips, subsidized mainly by nonprofit groups that do not have a clear commercial interest in matters before Congress, do not appear to pose a conflict of interest, watchdog groups say.

For example, the Sarbaneses' trips to Dresden and Barcelona were sponsored by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that paid for the travel and lodging of about two dozen legislators and academics, and their spouses, at both events.

In both instances, participants discussed how former Soviet republics are getting along with Russia and Western nations.

Even without raising a conflict of interest, though, Sarbanes' trips do raise eyebrows, said Steve Weissman of Congress Watch, a group sponsored by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

"This is a perk," Weissman said. "Should congressmen get perks that are not available to the public?"

The Manalapan conference, also staged by the Aspen Institute, focused on education and other issues affecting children, and many Republicans, including Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, also attended. The Sarbaneses' trips to Greece, where the senator has relatives, came courtesy of two Greek civic groups and allowed him to take part in ceremonies there.

The only other Marylander who registered high on a survey by the Center of Responsive Politics of the privately financed travel taken by Congress was Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who flew to Paris with his wife, Kendel, for a meeting arranged and paid for by the nonprofit Congressional Economic Leadership Institute.

Sarbanes' privately financed travel shows little sign of letting up. He has taken part in several events away from Baltimore and Washington this year sponsored by Greek-American civic groups, and in late August, along with his wife, the senator attended a five-day Aspen Institute conference in Budapest, Hungary.

The couple also found time on the swing back to visit Christine Sarbanes' relatives near London.

For nearly five decades, the Aspen Institute has routinely drawn prominent officials of all ideological stripes to meet out of the public eye to dissect social, economic and political issues of international importance.

The think tank owns a well-appointed conference center in Aspen, Colo., and a 1,100-acre complex overlooking the Wye River in Queenstown, where a Mideast peace summit is being conducted this weekend.

But the Aspen Institute also paid for more than 240 trips last year by senators and representatives -- more than any other private sponsor -- to sites scattered around the globe. Usually, the event is staged at an attractive location, and spouses are invited, so attendance is high.

"The idea is to bring together members [of Congress] to a quiet, out-of-town place to sit down, listen and reflect," said former Iowa Sen. Dick Clark, who runs the Aspen Institute's congressional seminars. "We have been really careful over the past 15 years to do this in the most ethical way."

Unlike at many conferences with similar-sounding themes, no one is buying access at Aspen functions. No lobbyists, donors or political operatives are allowed. Instead an unstated proposition is subtly promoted: Leading Americans should be engaged in issues that transcend borders.

On such issues as international affairs and finance, Clark said, Sarbanes "is ideal for this kind of thing because he's a scholar himself, or, at least, a scholarly guy. He's a real star."

Many congressional trips are paid for by corporations that have a direct interest in legislation before Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia flew to London with his wife, Marianne, last year to deliver a speech for a lecture series sponsored by the Atlantic Richfield Co. The cost of the five-day trip, picked up by ARCO: $33,000.

In just the first six months of 1997, disclosure forms show, ARCO paid more than $2.3 million for Washington lobbyists, a point widely noted by watchdog groups.

But Gingrich spokeswoman Christina Martin defended the London trip. "This was a trip approved by the [House] Ethics Committee before the speaker left the continent," Martin said.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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