Lawmakers' Use of Travel Stipends Probed

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - August 31, 2010

Congressional investigators are questioning a half-dozen lawmakers for possibly misspending government funds meant to pay for overseas travel, according to people familiar with the matter.

The investigation follows a Wall Street Journal article in March that said lawmakers had used daily cash stipends, meant to cover certain costs of official government travel overseas, to cover expenses that appeared to be unauthorized by House rules. An independent ethics board has referred the matter to the House ethics committee.

Investigators are said to have contacted lawmakers, below, included in a March 2 article on travel per diems.

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Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.)

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Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.)

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Rep. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.)

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Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D., Texas)

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Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.)

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Former Rep. Mark Souder (R., Ind.)

Congressional rules say the daily travel funds, called a per diem, must be spent on meals, cabs and other travel expenses. But when lawmakers travel, many of their meals and expenses are picked up by other people, such as foreign governmentofficials or U.S. ambassadors.

That can leave lawmakers with leftover money. Lawmakers routinely keep the extra funds or spend it on gifts, shopping or to cover their spouses' travel expenses, according to dozens of current and former lawmakers.

The cash payments vary according to the cost of living and range from about $25 a day in Kabul to more than $250 a day in one part of Japan. Lawmakers also usually request and receive an additional $50 a day. Leftover funds can add up to more than $1,000 a trip for longer visits to expensive regions.

There is no system for lawmakers to return excess travel funds when they return to the U.S. and investigators may conclude that House rules for the use of per diem are unclear. One lawmaker, Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), said that he mails a personal check to the U.S. Treasury after each trip. Congress doesn't keep any record of the amount of per diem that is returned to the government.

The Journal article in March quoted several lawmakers saying they didn't return excess travel funds to the government. Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) said he once bought marble goblets in Kabul. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.) said he paid for drinks and gifts for people who traveled with him. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.), who is a member of the House ethics committee, said he sometimes keeps the extra money. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) said he didn't know if he kept extra money because he doesn't keep receipts.

According to several lawmakers who have been contacted by ethics investigators, the probe is examining Messrs. Wilson, Hastings and Butterfield, as well as Rep. Aderholt and Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D., Texas). Former Rep. Mark Souder (R., Ind.) was also contacted by investigators.

Pepper Pennington, a spokeswoman for Mr. Wilson, said the marble goblets he bought cost less than $2 each and were gifts for members of the military. "Focusing on personal purchases under $2 while over 14 million Americans are out of work does not reflect the priorities of the American people," she said.

Darrell Jordan, a spokesman for Mr. Aderholt, confirmed that his office was contacted by ethics investigators.

Mr. Souder said he had been contacted by ethics investigators after he was quoted in the Journal story saying he spent per diem funds on a $200 painting of a Turkish estuary for his office. "They asked for all kinds of records, and I said I don't have any, because you didn't have to keep them," Mr. Souder said. The inquiry into Mr. Souder's spending was dropped after he retired from Congress in May. The ethics committee has jurisdiction only over current members of Congress.

The other lawmakers didn't return calls seeking comment.

Investigators won't make the probe public until after the election due to a House rule that bars announcements of ethics investigations in the months before an election.

The investigation by the House's independent ethics board, the Office of Congressional Ethics, began several months ago. The office made a veiled reference to the matter in a quarterly report detailing its activities for April, May and June.

After sending inquiries to the lawmakers involved, the ethics office found enough evidence to refer the matter this summer to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, known as the ethics committee, according to lawmakers and lawyers involved. The ethics committee has the power, after an investigation, to issue sanctions. The status of the committee's own inquiry was unclear, and the panel is prohibited from discussing its investigations.

The travel inquiry is the latest in a string of ethics investigations in the House that could hurt Democrats at the polls in November by undermining the party's message that it has "drained the swamp" of ethics abuses in Washington.

The House ethics committee is also pursuing high-profile cases against Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California. Both lawmakers could face public proceedings in coming weeks that would be the congressional equivalent of a trial. Mr. Rangel has said he didn't break any rules. Ms. Waters has said she is innocent of wrongdoing.

It wasn't clear if the ethics inquiry into travel funds would reach that level. The lawmakers could settle the matter by reimbursing the government for the money they spent. Investigators could also decide the rules have been too murky.

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