Luxury Trips, Junkets and Safaris, oh my!

With convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff out of prison and making the rounds promoting his book, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist,” it seems fair to say that not much has changed.

Abramoff bought influence in Washington by plying members of Congress with gifts and vacations and promises of jobs for top aides. A recent report in USA Today documented how the money is still flowing for legislators, just from a slightly different source.

Although gifts from lobbyists were banned in 2007 and privately funded travel reined in by the U.S. Congress, there were no similar restrictions placed on nonprofits. This year alone, congressional travel financed by nonprofits has increased 75 percent over 2010, and totaled some $3 million between January 2011 and Sept. 30.

It should come as little surprise that Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) is among those congressmembers who participated in one such trip. Crenshaw was in the middle of the pay-to-play scandal that took down his friend and traveling buddy, former House Majority Speaker Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who was convicted of criminal money laundering and sentenced to three years in prison (though he remains free on appeal). Between 2001 and ’05 — the height of Abramoff-style influence peddling — Crenshaw was among the country’s most traveled lawmakers, jetting about with friends and lobbyists, including a 2001 visit, along with his wife and Tom DeLay, to a posh Malaysian resort, and a 2004 trip to Denmark with Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), at taxpayer expense (see “Crenshaw’s Oil Stain,” Folio Weekly, http://bit.ly/u76gZJ).

This year, Crenshaw and wife Katherine went on a nine-day, $30,000 nature safari to South Africa and Botswana with three other lawmakers, paid for by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation. The stated purpose of the trip was to show legislators how resource conservation and sustainable economic practices are good for both communities and corporations. But their itinerary makes clear that luxury and adventure were priorities. The guests were ensconced for two nights at five-star lodgings inside the 49,000-acre Shamwari Game Reserve on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The group did receive conservation briefings at breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, but during their stay at Shamwari and then at two camps in game reserves in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, they spent at least five hours a day, for six days, in the bush, viewing lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and zebras — an experience the Shamwari Game Reserve bills as the “pinnacle safari of a lifetime.” (Searchable travel records are available for Representatives at http://1.usa.gov/rqB5ss and Senators at http://bit.ly/u6mpSk.)

The group that financed the trip said in disclosure forms that the goal was to demonstrate the connection between international conservation, U.S. economic interests and sustainable supply chains. The trip also allowed lawmakers to “become familiarized and educated on the critical role that conservation and sound natural resource management play in poverty alleviation, sustainable economic development and regional security.”

But the ICCF isn’t all veggie burgers and nature. The ICCF Conservation Council includes both environmental and corporate members like Kraft, Starbucks, Walmart and Coca-Cola. The foundation’s website includes a map of the world where one can see global projects being undertaken by Walt Disney Company or Marathon Oil Company. The safari was also paid for with funds from the Stephenson Foundation, founded by venture capitalist and Republican Thomas F. Stephenson, who served as Mitt Romney’s California finance co-chair for his presidential bid in 2008.

The line between a nonprofit lobbying and educating can appear thin. Though the ICCF doesn’t lobby, it recently advertised for a Capitol Outreach Fellow, whose job description included developing tools to educate congressmembers on issues — which sounds suspiciously like what a lobbyist does.

And while Crenshaw’s nine-day $30,000 sojourn may indeed have taught him some conservation basics, his reputation is more of an environmental hazard than an environmental steward. He’s voted in favor of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, against higher fuel efficiency standards, and in favor of increased timber harvesting in Florida’s Ocala National Forest. He’s also collected big campaign dollars from mega-polluters and Tea Party financiers the Koch Brothers, owners of Georgia-Pacific.

In an email to Folio Weekly, Crenshaw spokesperson Barbara Riley wrote that the Africa trip would help him with future decision-making. “Congressman Crenshaw values all opportunities to review how U.S. foreign assistance is being applied overseas,” she wrote, emphasizing that no taxpayer money was used.

Crenshaw isn’t the only lawmaker whose international travel is subsidized by others. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) traveled to Paris and Belgrade in early September with her daughter Shantrel, a Washington lobbyist who works for the firm Alcalde & Fay. The stated purpose of the trip was for Brown to receive a humanitarian award from the Karic Foundation. She was also the keynote speaker at a cultural event, where she spoke on “High-Speed Rail in the United States” — a little ironic, since there is no high-speed rail in the United States. Brown’s award included a medal set with a diamond, a diploma from Karic Brothers University and a “cheque,” according to the Foundation’s website. (Brown’s staff didn’t answer repeated emails inquiries about the size of the “cheque.”)

Brown’s decision to accept the $6,427 trip from the Karic Foundation may seem innocuous, but the Karic family’s history is not. The Karic brothers control a staggering array of business ventures in Serbia, from oil and manufacturing to cell phone service and news media outlets, having benefited from the patronage of Slobodan Miloševic, president of Yugoslavia and Serbia from 1989 to 2000 and indicted war criminal. (He died before the trial ended.) The Karic brothers were accused of evading more than $7 million in taxes in 2006 and last year were accused of embezzling more than $20 million while in control of the country’s largest cell phone company. The Karic Foundation is a nonprofit, but with clear connections to the brothers. Bogoljub Karic’s wife, Malinka, is president of the foundation.

In response to requests for comment about the company Brown was keeping in Serbia, Brown sent an email statement. “I’m very proud to have received this prestigious humanitarian award … [for] my advocacy for the African continent, and my work domestically on behalf of minorities and the poor.” She also congratulated the Karic family and the Foundation for their contributions to humanity.

Not to be outdone by his Northeast Florida peers, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) took the most trips.

He traveled to Vienna, Austria, for seven days in late April, courtesy of The Aspen Institute Congressional Program — ostensibly to consider the United States’ nuclear challenges. He also went on a three-day January retreat to Los Angeles with his wife, Joan, paid for by The Heritage Foundation. And in August, he accepted a nine-day trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, from the pro-Israeli American Israel Education Foundation.

Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County spokesperson Victor Wilhelm criticizes the practice of accepting nonprofit dollars for travel. He points out that reporting requirements for nonprofits are lax, and don’t indicate whether the funding came directly or indirectly from corporate interests.

“Twenty different corporations can donate to a nonprofit and then the nonprofit pays for this or that,” he says. “But there’s no way to see where it’s going.”

As for the purpose of the trips, Wilhelm is blunt. “These guys are buying influence,” he says. “That’s what they are doing, and it’s a bad game.”

Susan Cooper E

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