WASHINGTON – The communications industry spent $704,000 on 450 trips for lawmakers on two congressional oversight committees, their families and staff members in the past four years, a watchdog group reported.
The biggest beneficiary was Rep. Billy Tauzin (search), a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to a study being released Thursday by The Center for Public Integrity (search).
Tauzin, R-La., took 87 industry-funded trips to Las Vegas, San Diego, New York and elsewhere, at a cost of $139,000, the report said. Tauzin, who is retiring from Congress this year, stepped down as chairman on Feb. 16.
The center based its figures on congressional office travel records for members of that House committee and the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee.
Both have jurisdiction over communications-related legislation and issues. The committees also oversee the Federal Communications Commission (search), which regulates the communications industry.
Behind Tauzin was Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., with 31 trips valued at $41,529, and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., with 14 trips worth $27,398.
Burns defended his travel and said it's part of bringing better services to his constituents.
"Coming from a rural state, technology and communications have long been priorities for me as I work to bring our rural areas on par with bigger cities," said Burns, who chairs a Senate communications subcommittee. "I also require that any and all travel my staff or I participate in goes through a strict review process and complies with the rules of the United States Senate and the Ethics Committee."
Calls to the offices of Tauzin and Upton were not immediately returned Wednesday.
"If you are regulating an industry, it raises questions when you accept free trips and other perks from the same industry. It looks bad," said John Dunbar, lead author of the report.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association paid for the most trips, 102 in all, totaling $198,727, the report said.
The trade group has lobbied Congress in the past year to take a hands-off approach to regulating phone calls over the Internet. It also has urged lawmakers not to force cable companies to allow subscribers to pick individual channels rather than pay for a package of channels, as they do now.
Others paying for congressional trips included the United States Telecom Association, SBC Communications Inc. and the National Association of Broadcasters.
The report found that the communications industry, defined as broadcasting, cable and telecommunications, has spent $1.1 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions since 1998.
Over that same period of time, the industry favored George W. Bush with a total of $1.8 million in campaign contributions. Democrat John Kerry received $1.1 million.
Former Bell telephone company SBC Communications was the biggest donor to Bush, giving $178,000 in contributions. Kerry's top communications donor was Time Warner, with $242,000 worth of donations, according to the report.