By Fred Lucas THE NEWS-TIMES
Imagine all-expense-paid trips to the Bahamas, Ecuador, Europe, China, Las Vegas, even Alaska. They might sound like game show prizes, but they're a perk for some members of Congress, their spouses and staff.
In Connecticut, U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-5th Dist., lead the way in jetting on someone else's dime. That is according to a report released this month by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group, which covered the period from January 2000 to June 2005.
In all, interest groups spent more than $600,000 on more than 300 trips for Connecticut members of Congress over a 5½-year period.
Lieberman and his staff took 130 trips, more than twice as many as any other member of the Connecticut delegation during the period covered by the report, with private interests footing the $119,000 bill.
But various organizations spent $200,000 on Johnson's 51 trips — almost double what was spent on any other member in the state.
"It is directly relevant to Nancy's work in Congress to create jobs, strengthen our manufacturing base, improve our health care system and protect the environment," Johnson spokesman Brian Schubert said. "It allows members of Congress and their staff to gain first-hand knowledge and expertise on issues critical to Connecticut."
U.S. Reps. Christopher Shays, D-4th Dist., and John Larson, D-1st Dist., took $81,000 and $66,000 respectively in trips. That's more than U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, who accepted $62,000 in trips.
U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd Dist., and Rob Simmons, R-2nd Dist., accepted less than $50,000 in privately funded travel.
Even if it's for business, few members of Congress travel to undesirable locations, said Sam Stein, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity.
"How many of these trips are to the Sudan and how many are to Paris?" Stein said. "Fact-finding missions primarily seem to be in vacation spots."
It should cause concern that so many members brought their spouses on trips, Stein said.
"If the trips are for legitimate fact-finding mission, taking family members makes it seem like more of a vacation than a vocation," he said.
Shays said he sees nothing wrong with taking a spouse along.
"Most of the time my wife does not join me," Shays said. "When she does, Betsi has joined me in order to educate herself on the issues and allow us to have more time together, which is rare in public life."
U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson
The Aspen Institute — a non-profit group offering leadership seminars and conferences for government leaders from both parties — spent $21,000 to send Johnson and her husband, Dr. Ted Johnson, to China to discuss U.S.-Chinese relations last year.
The Ripon Society, a moderate Republican group, paid $15,000 for Johnson to travel to Scotland for the 2001 Transatlantic Conference.
The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, paid $17,000 for a highly publicized trip Johnson made last year to Quito, Ecuador, and the Galapgos Islands.
Johnson's Democratic opponent Chris Murphy, a state senator from Cheshire, supports a complete ban on privately funded travel for members of Congress. He said he would not accept the trips if elected.
"This kind of luxurious travel is what is wrong with Washington, and Nancy's excessive indulgence with travel means she has been there far too long," Murphy said.
"I understand there is an educational component, but it's not tens of thousands of dollars worth of education."
The report also says 18 health-care-related groups, such as insurance and pharmaceutical companies, spent about $26,000 to take Johnson's legislative staff on fact-finding missions and conferences.
Metropolitan Life, Merck and Novartis sponsored Florida trips to Orlando, Tampa and Boca Raton respectively for Johnson's staff. The American Council for Life Insurance sent Johnson staff to Las Vegas for a conference. These trips cost about $2,000.
Johnson chairs a health-care subcommittee, and was one of the leading architects of a Medicare prescription plan that critics say benefits the insurance and drug companies.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman
Beyond the race for the 5th District House seat, the report has created an opportunity for others challenging incumbents to criticize.
"When it comes to the corporate frequent flyer sweepstakes, Joe Lieberman is at the top of the state delegation list," said a statement from the campaign of Republican Alan Schlesinger, who is running for Lieberman's Senate seat.
"At the same time he talks about reform, he continues the privilege of jetting around Hollywood and elsewhere, running for president, vice president and senate."
Lieberman's office trips were mostly $3,000 or less, and the vast majority were taken in 2000. The most expensive during that time period was a $7,000 trek by one of Lieberman's staff members to China paid for by the U.S.-Asia Institute.
That was followed by a $4,000 trip to Taiwan for another staffer, which was paid for by the Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association in 2000.
Another staffer traveled to Las Vegas for a program sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute and took an excursion to Puerto Rico covered by the Federation of American Hospitals. These trips cost between $1,000 to $3,000.
About 90 of the office's trips were taken by Lieberman's staff.
Lieberman himself traveled to Beverly Hills to speak at an event sponsored by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, to Milwaukee for the pro-immigrant group National Council of La Raza, and to Minneapolis for by the American Post Workers Union.
"Sen. Lieberman is out of touch with Connecticut because he's spending time with corporations and out-of-state donors," said Liz Dupont-Diehl, spokeswoman for Ned Lamont, who is challenging Lieberman in a Democratic primary.
Lieberman has proposed measures to curb privately funded travel by requiring that members pay the difference in the price of a charter flight and a commercial flight, said Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips.
"Sen. Lieberman does a lot of travel and most is not privately funded," Phillips said. "From the senator's view it is better to have American industry pay for some travel than the taxpayers. As you can see, the bill does add up."
U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays
Shays, of the 4th District, has also been a longtime reformer of ethics and campaign finance rules. But that has not prevented him from taking trips paid for by others.
"It can give a bad impression, depending on where a member goes, what the purpose of the trip is, and what they do when they are there," Shays said.
"The trips I take are not vacations," Shays continued. "I don't golf. I don't play tennis. I don't ski. I don't go to beaches. The most I would do is get exercise running. When you give a speech, quite often you come in the night before and leave the next day."
The Aspen Institute paid $15,000 to send Shays and his wife, Betsi Shays, to China for a conference on U.S.-Chinese relations in 2002. The Aspen Institute also covered a $4,000 trip to Naples, Fla., for Shays and his wife in 2000.
He also took a $3,000 trip to Los Angeles in 2004 paid for by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization. A Shays staffer went to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, a $2,000 trip paid for by the Sierra Club, an environmental group, in 2004.
Shays said sometimes travel is
the only way to learn about an issue.
"I recently traveled to Africa with Planned Parenthood, where I looked at health-care clinics and learned an incredible amount about the health needs of women there," Shays said. "In terms of speeches, Members are able to help influence public policy. Fact-finding trips make for a better informed members of Congress."
But he supports constraints.
"I think the big offense is the leaders of both parties and senators of both parties take corporate jets and only pay the first-class rate," Shays said. "Sen. John McCain and I have introduced legislation to change that."
Not surprisingly, Democrat Diane Farrell, who is challenging Shays, does not want to let him off the hook.
"The American people see these kind of trips and it causes a level of skepticism," Farrell said. "It's hard to imagine really focusing on the district when he is off doing exotic travel."
Still, Farrell did not say she would rule out taking privately funded trips if elected. "It depends on the reason," she said.
At least when it comes to privately funded travel, other members of Connecticut's delegation have not taken advantage of opportunities quite as often.
The office of Simmons, who was elected in 2000, took 17 trips at a cost of $44,000 to the interest groups that sent him.
Larson took 25 trips for $66,000 in private funds.
Rosa DeLauro took 15 trips, at a total expense of $25,000 covered by private groups.
Former U.S. Rep. James Maloney, D-5th Dist., who was defeated for his seat in 2002, traveled 11 times during the time the study was done, at a total cost of $19,000.
Former U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-2nd Dist., defeated in 2000, accepted seven trips that year at a cost of $17,000.
Dodd and staff took 32 trips paid for by advocacy groups, businesses and think tanks, at a cost of $62,000. The U.S. Spain Council Inc. spent $8,000 to send Dodd to Valencia, Spain.
The state's senior senator also took a $6,000 trip to Switzerland covered by the World Economic Forum, a $4,000 trip to India from the Confederation of Indian Industry, and a $5,000 trip to Boca Raton, Fla., covered by the Chinese Mercantile Exchange.
"Each of these trips directly relate to Senator Dodd's work in the Senate," said Colleen Flanagan, spokeswoman for Dodd. "Our office exercises fiscal restraint when it comes to travel, and we fully comply with applicable Senate rules."