Ellison's privately paid trip to Mecca prompts debate

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2009 - 7:56 AM

The ethics panel that signed off on his free pilgrimage will review whether he needs to report the cost.

WASHINGTON - Last fall, two years after becoming the first Muslim member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison received an intriguing offer from an organization based in Inver Grove Heights -- a free pilgrimage to Mecca. After clearing it with the House Ethics Committee, the Minneapolis Democrat packed his bags for Saudi Arabia.

The 16-day trip, including food and lodging, was on the dime of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, where an imam is an acquaintance of Ellison's.

Though members of Congress are required to disclose the details of just about any gift they receive, Ellison's office has declined to make public the cost of his trip, estimated at several thousand dollars, maintaining that it was "personal." His spokesman also says the ethics panel didn't require disclosure of the figure.

On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from the Star Tribune about whether the cost should have been reported on disclosure forms released this month, the Ethics Committee is revisiting whether the congressman must report it, said Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert.

The move comes after several government ethics and transparency experts told the Star Tribune that they question why a major gift to a prominent politician is shrouded in secrecy.

The episode illustrates how privately funded trips, which are essentially legal gifts to members of Congress, can still be a source of debate in Washington. Two Minnesota Democrats, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz, have pledged not to accept privately sponsored travel, but others haven't shared similar qualms.

Because of 2007 ethics legislation, lobbyists can no longer sponsor trips for members of Congress. Instead, the bulk of privately sponsored congressional travel is now done through nonprofit organizations, which often host conferences or fact-finding missions around the world. The trips are subject to vast transparency and ethics guidelines, requiring travelers to disclose detailed itineraries and a summary of expenses.

'If it's personal, he should pay for it'

Jauert said that Ellison does not have to report the cost of the trip and that he would not disclose it voluntarily, citing its "personal" nature. He said that the office is acting in accordance with the Ethics Committee but would only supply portions of a letter from the panel approving the trip, which leaves unclear the legal basis on which the office says the cost is not public.

Under House financial disclosure rules, the cost of gifts given for "personal benefit" must be included on financial disclosure forms. Ellison's most recent form, however, noted only that he made the trip, in addition to details such as its length, the destination and its sponsor.

Asad Zaman, an imam at MAS of Minnesota, and Ellison both declined to comment. The Ethics Committee does not comment on individual cases.

Three attorneys specializing in House ethics rules who were contacted by the Star Tribune said it was notable that Ellison's office would not release letters from the ethics panel, which can be made public at the office's discretion. Some indicated it was possible that Ellison represented the trip not as being for personal benefit, but rather as "unrelated to official duties" -- a clause normally reserved for representatives attending corporate retreats or other trips not for personal benefit. Making such a claim would mean the cost of the gift would not have to be made public.

"It strikes me if it's personal, he should pay for it," said Cleta Mitchell, co-chair of the Republican National Lawyers Association, who practices ethics law and has represented clients before the House Ethics Committee. "And if it's not personal and somebody else paid for it, then they seem to be taking extraordinary steps to avoid disclosure."

Melanie Sloan, co-founder of the liberal-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she would like to see the ethics committee's rationale for letting the cost go unreported, adding that the lack of disclosure "seems unacceptable to me."

Fully disclosed travel

More often than not, privately sponsored congressional travel is fully disclosed and funded by nonprofit organizations hosting conferences that relate to the legislator's official duties. While itineraries show many of those events to be substantive, the locations are sometimes exotic.

Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has taken his wife on four privately paid trips in the past two years worth a total of more than $44,000, all funded by the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. Most recently, Oberstar went to Valencia, Spain, to discuss climate change.

John Schadl, a spokesman for Oberstar, said the congressman's recent travel funded by the Aspen Institute -- the cost and itineraries of which have been disclosed -- relates to his work on the Transportation Committee.

Some other trips are funded by campaign donors. Minneapolis attorney Dan Rosen, for example, spent several thousand dollars last fall to partially pay for Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to travel to Israel with him and the Jewish Community Relations Council, where he is a board member.

Rosen, who has given $4,750 to Bachmann's campaigns, said he was inspired to help the JCRC pay for the trip in part because he feels taxpayer-funded delegations abroad are insufficient.

Other notable travelers include Rep. Collin Peterson's staff, who took the second-most privately sponsored trips in Congress between 2005 and 2008, according to Opensecrets.org. Most of the travel was inexpensive and directly related to the Minnesota Democrat's position as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

But two Democratic members of the delegation have said privately sponsored travel can be unfair or ethically dubious.

Klobuchar denounced the trips in 2006, saying that they offer special interest groups with more money closer access to members of Congress, which she feels is unfair to her constituents.

Walz, who ran in 2006 as a populist reformer, has also sworn not to take privately sponsored travel. Sara Severs, a spokeswoman for his office, said he does not believe all such travel is unethical -- but he's not taking any chances.

Eric Roper • 202-408-2723

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