WASHINGTON – House leaders defended their members from accusations about taking overseas trips paid by lobbyists just hours before the House ethics committee officially organized itself on Wednesday evening.
Staffing issues were still to be resolved as the panel voted 10-0 on how to administer rules put back into place last week by the full House. Democrats had refused to attend committee hearings as long as rules passed by the House in January remained in place.
The re-activation of the committee occurred after it was discovered this week that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) isn't the only representative on Capitol Hill who doesn't know exactly where that money comes from.
Two Democratic congressmen recently reported that a trip they took in January 1997 may have been initially paid for by the same lobbyist who is implicated in questions about DeLay's travel.
Democratic Reps. James Clyburn (search) of South Carolina and Bennie Thompson (search) of Mississippi have both filed travel reports saying that a nonprofit organization had invited them on a trip to the Northern Mariana Islands (search), an American territory in the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of the trip was to persuade Congress to block Clinton administration efforts to regulate alleged "sweatshop" garment factories. The rules never were enacted.
As it turns out, the trip, in which the congressmen met with the governor of the islands and other officials, was paid for, at least initially, by the islands' chief lobbyist at the time, Jack Abramoff.
House rules say lobbyists cannot pay for representatives' travel even if they are later reimbursed by another legitimate group or government agency. Clyburn and Thompson both filed reports to Congress saying they thought a nonprofit group, the National Security Caucus Foundation, funded their trip.
"It seems as if the foundation .... did not pay for the trips but that the government involved reimbursed a lobbyist who paid for the trip," Clyburn said on Wednesday. "I had absolutely no knowledge of any of that. All I know was that told they told me that the foundation would be paying for the trip."
Two aides to DeLay — Tony Rudy and then-chief of staff Ed Buckham — also had their 1996 trip to the islands paid by Abramoff's firm, Preston Gates (search). A spokesman for DeLay's office told The Washington Post that the staffers thought the trip was paid by the government of the islands.
Abramoff is being investigated for illegal practices in his lobbying work. Abramoff told clients in a December 1996 letter that the government should reimburse him for the travel because of concerns the payments might draw scrutiny from the House ethics committee.
"I ... expect to receive a call tomorrow or Tuesday from the House ethics committee, asking for an update as to the reimbursement situation and, possibly, our outstanding bill. They are watching the trips very closely," Abramoff wrote to a Marianas official.
Abramoff is also the man who paid travel expenses for a trip to London and Scotland taken by DeLay in 2000. DeLay said he didn't know that a lobbyist had paid for the trip.
That situation has generated chatter in Washington and highlighted questions about funding travel for members of Congress. On Wednesday, leaders on Capitol Hill defended their party members, with top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi arguing that Democratic members didn't know about the violation at the time it was committed and they can't be painted with the same brush as DeLay, a serial violator of ethics rules.
"Make no mistake, there's a drastic difference between the timing of reporting a trip and the ethical behavior that is associated with poor public policy that is the issue that the ethics committee will take up," Pelosi said. "Let's not say that this is the same as issues that Mr. DeLay has been admonished for on more than on occasion."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert responded that the ethics panel will give lawmakers better guidance on the rules so they don't violate them.
The panel can give guidance before trips about "what's right and what's acceptable and what's not acceptable; I think people need to have those standards," he said.
FOX News' Molly Henneberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.