Ellison reveals cost of trip to Mecca: $13.5K

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2009 - 11:33 PM

"I didn't do anything wrong," he said of how he reported it.

WASHINGTON - After a months-long review by a U.S. House ethics panel, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., has disclosed the amount of his privately-paid trip to Mecca in December.

The trip, paid for by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, cost $13,350, Ellison said Thursday.

The two-week trip to Saudi Arabia, which Ellison described as a personal religious pilgrimage, or Hajj, prompted little discussion until June when Ellison filed financial travel reports that failed to disclose the amount the Muslim group had paid for his travel.

In releasing the amount on Thursday, Ellison held to his previous assertion that he was following the instructions of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics committee.

"I never had a moral objection to giving the number out," said Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. "But the rules said I didn't have to, so I didn't. Now I am."

What changed is the committee's view of the trip.

In a Sept. 21 letter to Ellison, ethics officials had said that a "statutorily-mandated review" of Ellison's financial disclosure statements indicated that he originally had "disclosed the trip properly." But "upon further review," the committee said, Ellison must now report the cost of the trip.

The letter, signed by committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and ranking Republican Jo Bonner of Alabama, said, "We consider this change to be merely a minor, technical correction, and we concur that you followed proper procedures and committee guidance."

In explaining the discrepancy with the panel's October, 2008, advice -- rendered two months before the trip -- Lofgren and Bonner noted that Ellison's original itinerary indicated he might add "meetings of an official nature, such as with government or business leaders."

In some cases where House members can show that they are accepting paid travel for business purposes unrelated to their official duties in Congress, they don't have to fully disclose the costs.

Personal travel

But as part of the review, Ellison's office informed the panel that he did not, in fact, travel for business purposes. According to the Sept. 21 letter, Ellison "instead undertook only the more personal itinerary scheduled by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota."

Under ethics guidelines, privately sponsored trips of a purely personal nature are considered gifts, and are subject to full public disclosure. Such trips have become more frequent since 2007, when new ethics legislation barred lobbyists from sponsoring trips for members of Congress.

Ellison's trip prompted calls for an investigation by the Minnesota Republican Party, which noted that the Muslim American Society had received state funds through an affiliated charter school, the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy. The school's executive director, Asad Zaman, accompanied Ellison on his trip.

A spokesman for the academy said that no public funds were used for Ellison's trip, and that the Muslim American Society commonly underwrites the travel of scholars and dignitaries for the purpose of fostering greater understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Discussion of the trip has also spilled over into the Minnesota Legislature, where some legislators -- Republican as well as DFLers -- have questioned the past flow of funds derived from public charter school rents to the Muslim American Society.

But Republicans say there are still unanswered questions.

"After the ethics committee forced him to reveal personal travel expenses of $13,350, Keith Ellison still has some explaining to do," said Tony Sutton, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party. "Since there are rules against nonprofit religious groups furthering the 'private interests' of individuals, Ellison needs to explain how this private trip was reported to the IRS."

Ellison, explaining his decision not to disclose the cost of the trip voluntarily, said he had held to a legal line between what information is public, and what is not.

"Where those limits exist," he said, "I'm going to take advantage of those limits, when it's legal for me to do so. And where it's not, then I'm going to disclose."

Journalists and ethics experts who were calling on him to make the cost of the trip public, he said, were making an improper "moral judgment" and displaying "bias."

"Bottom line," Ellison said, "I didn't do anything wrong." 

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288

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