Lobbyist Abramoff Linked to Democrats' Trips

Robert Siegel talks to Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post about the latest news concerning Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Smith says that Abramoff paid — at least in part — for trips by two Democratic congressmen, James Clyburn and Bennie Thompson, and two staff members to then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay, to the Northern Mariana Islands in the 1990s.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In The Washington Post today, more on what the lobbyist Jack Abramoff did for members of Congress and for congressional staffers. Post reporter Jeffrey Smith writes that Abramoff, who is considered close to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, paid some of the cost of trips by two Democratic congressman and two of DeLay's staffers to the Northern Mariana Islands in the 1990s.

Jeffrey Smith, first, why was Mr. Abramoff paying for anyone's travel to the Northern Marianas?

Mr. JEFFREY SMITH (The Washington Post): Well, he wasn't paying out of his on pocket, of course. He was being paid by somebody to make these payments. He specifically was working for the Northern Marianas government, and they had two principal legislative interests. They wanted to block a bill that restricted the flow of Asian immigrants to the islands, where people had alleged that they are mistreated in sweatshops. And business interests, you know, and the government also wanted to ensure that they would be exempt from paying minimum wages. So the islands basically paid Preston Gates $4 1/2 million to lobby for them between 1996 and 2000.

SIEGEL: That's the lobbying firm that Abramoff was associated with, you're saying?

Mr. SMITH: Yes.

SIEGEL: Who went on these trips to the Marianas?

Mr. SMITH: Well, a lot of people, two congressmen in particular: James Clyburn of South Carolina and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. They were invited to go by a group called the National Security Caucus Foundation, which was organizing a whole bunch of trips and seemed to be acting in concert with various private interests in doing so.

In addition, two aides to DeLay went: his then-chief of staff, Ed Buckham, and one of his deputy chiefs of staff, a fellow by the name of Tony Rudy. Both of them are now lobbyists. They were close to Abramoff while they were working for DeLay, and they were close to Abramoff after they stopped working for DeLay and opened up their own lobby shop, which had, of course, perfect entree to the majority leader.

SIEGEL: The two congressmen in question are Democrats.

Mr. SMITH: They are.

SIEGEL: So this was an equal opportunity operation.

Mr. SMITH: It was. Abramoff organized trips to the Marianas Islands mostly by a group of conservative think tank types in Washington and some, you know, members of staff of conservative offices. But obviously, he pulled in some Democrats, as well.

SIEGEL: By the standards of the House of Representatives in the 1990s, was this ethically acceptable, and did the intermediary institution of the think tank launder the money sufficiently for it not to be unacceptable?

Mr. SMITH: It seems clear that in this case, the think tank didn't actually pay for the trip; Abramoff paid for it. And he then billed his lobbying firm, and the lobbying firm billed the client. House ethics rules now and then are the same, and they say registered lobbyists or their firms cannot pay for travel-related expenses, cannot do so under any circumstances, even if they're later reimbursed by somebody else who it might have been legal to get the money from.

SIEGEL: And that goes for members and staff equally?

Mr. SMITH: Members and staff equally. So in this case, Mr. Clyburn and Mr. Thompson, you know, appear to have done something that was not allowed by congressional ethics rules, and, also, the two staff members did something that they shouldn't have done under congressional ethics rules. Now they claim--all of them claim that they didn't know that the payments were being made by the lobbying firm, and that's something that, you know, an ethics investigation would have to sort out the truth of.

SIEGEL: One of the arguments that we've heard invoked by Tom DeLay and his supporters is that whatever he was doing was common, whether it was having his family on the political action campaign or the campaign payroll. Are we seeing here a phenomenon of travel being paid for by lobbyists, as has been identified in DeLay's case as having happened, being more common than we might have thought?

Mr. SMITH: It seems clear from what we're learning so far that the frequency with which this is happening is just well beyond what anyone knew, that other members of Congress have gone on foreign trips paid for by lobbyists. It just seems like what Tom DeLay did was, in fact, something that other members of Congress did, as well. That, of course, doesn't make it in compliance with House ethics rules.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Smith, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SMITH: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Smith is national investigative correspondent for The Washington Post.

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