San Diego Contractor's Air Junkets Pay Off

Private sponsors spent millions to fly lawmakers and staffers on trips, and a study cites a small San Diego contractor as a big sponsor. But General Atomics was succcessful in selling the unmanned Predator aircraft to the government.

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Lawmakers and some key staffers are taking thousands of all-expense-paid trips each year, and corporations, trade groups, and other private interests, are picking up the tab. A new watchdog report says private sponsors spent nearly $50 million over the last several years on airfare, hotel rooms, and other travel expenses for such trips.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports on one of the biggest spenders.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

General Atomics makes the Predator, a remote control spy plane that flies with no pilot onboard. But the San Diego defense contractor has helped put plenty of people onboard other planes. According to a new watchdog report, General Atomics was the number one corporate sponsor of Congressional travel over the last five and a half years.

The company shelled out $660,000 to send lawmakers and key staffers to places like Italy, Turkey, and Australia.

Mr. WENDELL RAWLS (Executive Director, The Center for Public Integrity): If you boil it all away, what this really is is just another form of lobbying.

HORSLEY: Wendell Rawls is Executive Director for the Center for Public Integrity, which studied the privately funded travel. He suggests the sometimes lavish trips help companies like General Atomics win friends on Capitol Hill. And sometimes, those Congressional friends help companies like General Atomics in return.

Mr. RAWLS: One of the biggest advocates was, in fact, Representative Duke Cunningham, who is now in prison for taking bribes. His office, in a three-year period, accepted more than $53,000 in trips to Europe and Australia.

HORSLEY: In the spring of 2002, for example, General Atomics paid more than $5,400 to send Cunningham aide Nancy Lifset to Italy for a week. At the time, Cunningham served on a sub-committee that funds military budgets.

Also on that trip was Leticia White, an aide to the chairman of the sub-committee, Congressman Jerry Lewis. White's lobbyist husband came along as well, with General Atomics paying the couples' bill of nearly $9,000.

Mr. RAWLS: They try often to couch that as educational or fact-finding. But you kind of wonder, why does the spouse then need to go to be educated and have the fact-finding for the elected representative?

HORSLEY: Leticia White herself later became a lobbyist, and her clients include General Atomics.

A spokesman for her lobbying firm says industry-funded travel is common for Congressional aides. General Atomics notes that its payments were reviewed by the appropriate ethics committees.

For a small company, General Atomics has certainly enjoyed outsized support on Capitol Hill. And that's been critical for the firm's multibillion dollar Predator sales. Congressman Lewis boasts that he personally earmarked funds to help develop the unmanned spy plane, despite skepticism from the Pentagon.

The all-expense paid trips and other lobbyings that surround that funding may raise eyebrows, but defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, says this is one instance in which the lawmaker's decision paid off.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institute): Certainly, the fighter pilot mentality that leads the way at the Air Force was reluctant to think about moving away from manned combat aircraft. So there has been a certain prodding from the Congress. But in the last few years the Pentagon certainly has gotten quite serious about it itself.

HORSLEY: Predator surveillance, for example, helped guide the attack last week on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Few companies that sponsor Congressional travel can claim that kind of pay-off, but military analyst John Pike, of Global Security.org, says however suspect it's political origins, the Predator has proved its value in combat.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Defense Analyst, Global Security.org): Predator has been revolutionary. When it went into Afghanistan, when it's been in Iraq, I think it has fundamentally revolutionized air power.

HORSLEY: Last year, the Air Force announced plans to spend more than $5 billion on Predators. That makes the $660,000 General Atomics spent on Congressional travel look like a very wise investment.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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