The Marketplace Report: White House Free Trips

Alex Chadwick talks to John Dimsdale of Marketplace about a new study from the Center for Public Integrity focusing on free trips accepted by White House aides. The study found that from 1998 to 2004, more than 600 Clinton and Bush White House aides took free trips to conferences, held everywhere from Paris to Hawaii.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

This week, an ethics watchdog group, The Center for Public Integrity, published a study showing that more than 600 White House staff members have taken free trips to conferences and seminars over the past six years, that is during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Their travel and living expenses adding up to more than $2.3 million were picked up by companies and colleges and lobbying organizations. Many of these groups that paid for the trips do business with the federal government. Joining us is John Dimsdale in "Marketplace's" Washington bureau.

John, how do we know about this free travel by White House officials?

JOHN DIMSDALE reporting:

Well, these trips are allowed by federal law, but they have to be disclosed. So the center compiled the disclosure statements for the first time and they found that Karl Rove, for example, the deputy chief of staff at the White House, took eight trips, Alberto Gonzales, the former general counsel now the attorney general, went on 15 trips. And as you said, the records go back to 1998, so in the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore and national security adviser Sandy Berger were among the frequent fliers.

CHADWICK: So where are they going, and who's paying for it?

DIMSDALE: Well, there are more than 300 cities on the list: Paris, Rome, Key West, Las Vegas. Karl Rove went to speeches paid for by Harvard and the University of Utah. He also went to Aspen, Colorado, a trip paid for by Forstmann Little & Company. That's a big venture capital firm.

Others in the White House took trips paid by the drugmaker Eli Lilly or the Biotechnology Industry Association. The most prolific trip underwriter is the AFL-CIO, which spent $218,000, all of it, as you might expect, for White House staffers during the Clinton administration.

CHADWICK: John, if these people are going and giving speeches at events, isn't it--wouldn't these organizations say it's perfectly legitimate to be paying the expenses. After all, we're inviting these people to come and give a speech; we want them to come. I mean, what's the problem with that?

DIMSDALE: Well, I assume they would say that, but I called a half a dozen of the funders and absolutely none of them would comment. There was one spokesman who said he'd answer the question only if I didn't disclose his name or association. He says, you know, there are benefits for both sides to learn about each other and gets these government employees outside the Beltway and the taxpayers don't have to pay for it. However, as The Center for Public Integrity points out, some of these trips have pretty close connection between the travel and some sort of government decision or grant that benefits the company paying for it. So conflicts of interest abound here.

Coming up later today on "Marketplace," we talk with some American soldiers who, as they return to civilian life, are having a tough time finding jobs.

CHADWICK: Thank you, John.

John Dimsdale of Public Radio's daily business show "Marketplace" from American Public Media.

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