An investigative report by online news journal ProPublica questions whether U.S. Rep. Bill Owens violated House ethics rules when he traveled to Taiwan late last year.
Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh, traveled to Taiwan with his wife in December 2011 to promote economic development and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Taiwan, a major trade U.S. trade partner.
The report claims the trip was organized by Taiwanese government lobbyists, a direct violation of congressional rules, according to ProPublica. The report tallies the trip's cost at more than $22,000, paid for by the private Chinese Culture University in Taiwan.
Rep. Bill Owens
(Enterprise file photo)
"A rule passed by Congress after the Jack Abramoff scandal states: 'Member and staff participation in officially-connected travel that is in any way planned, organized, requested, or arranged by a lobbyist is prohibited,'" the report says.
But Owens spokesman Sean Magers said the congressman filed all the necessary paperwork with the House Ethics Committee and got approval for the trip in advance.
"The trip was planned through significant communication with the embassy of Taiwan, and we believe it was conducted within full compliance of House rules," Magers said in a prepared statement.
The Enterprise has reviewed paperwork submitted to the Ethics Committee prior to the trip, as well as a letter approving it, signed by House Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner and ranking member Linda T. Sanchez.
But ProPublica said that although the trip's sponsor was identified as the Culture University, Owens was actually invited to participate by the New York lobbyist firm Park Strategies, which was founded by Alfonse D'Amato, a former U.S. senator and Republican from New York. Sean King of Park Strategies, son of Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island, also had a hand in organizing the trip.
Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group that helped create House ethics reforms following the Abramoff scandal, told ProPublica that "lobbyists are not supposed to be associated with this trip in any way.
"They are not supposed to be organizing this or orchestrating it," he said.
The ProPublica report drew a harsh response from Upstate New York Tea Party Chairman Mark Barie, who issued a statement Friday calling for Owens to resign.
"If I was offered an all-expense paid trip to Taiwan worth $22,000 I would ask why," Barie said. "And if I didn't ask why, I would be called stupid or dishonest or both.
"My congratulations to Mr. Owens," he added. "He has transformed himself from hometown boy into a corrupt Washington politician. If Owens doesn't man up and resign, the voters will throw him out in November."
Matt Doheny, a Watertown Republican running against Owens, issued a statement Friday saying, "We find ProPublica's report very troubling. Bill Owens had lobbyist buddies arrange a luxurious Christmas vacation for him and his wife - complete with first class flights and $500-a-night hotel stays.
"Bill Owens' call to lobbyists - who are also, incidentally, campaign donors - to 'super-size' his trip is emblematic of everything that's wrong in Washington. We ask our members of Congress to represent our interests. Bill Owens would rather take a $22,000 trip to a foreign country with his wife than find ways to fix this ailing economy and get constituents back to work. We can do much better."
Kellie Greene of Sackets Harbor, another Republican candidate challenging Owens, told the Enterprise she would decline to comment until she knows more of the facts.
Owens issued a statement Friday afternoon saying the reason he visited Taiwan was to meet representatives from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., which he described as "a high-tech company that is considering opening a manufacturing facility in Upstate New York.
"If this facility comes to fruition, it has the potential to create hundreds, if not thousands of good paying jobs in the region," Owens said. "Along with other meetings, I met with the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce and promoted investment and job creation in Northern New York via the EB5 Program, which allows foreign investors in the U.S. economy to obtain U.S. visas.
"We closely followed the Ethics Committee's process to seek advance approval for the trip, which we obtained. Because the sponsor, the Chinese Culture University, did not employ or retain lobbyists or foreign agents, and because no lobbyist or foreign agent was traveling with me or paying for the trip, we did not understand that our contacts with an agent for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office could affect the trip's permissibility. We made every effort to comply with the standards of conduct and continue to believe that no rules were violated.
"Still, I hold myself and my office to the highest of ethical standards. In an abundance of caution, and to avoid any question about the purpose of the travel, which was to bring jobs to New York, or about whether it was appropriate for the sponsor to pay for its costs, I am reimbursing the sponsor personally for the full value of the trip."
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