May 27, 2015
Lobbyists Arranged N.Y. Congressman’s $20,000 Trip To Taiwan
Posted on May 11, 2012
By Justin Elliott, ProPublica
Between August and January, there were 35 exchanges about the trip between Park Strategies lobbyists and Owens and his aides 2014 by phone, email and in person 2014 including a December call between D’Amato and Owens.
The planning appears to have started in early August 2011, when Zagame and Sean King met for lunch at KyoChon Chicken at Fifth Avenue and 32nd Street in Manhattan to discuss the trip and other matters. They billed Taiwan for the $50 check.
Later that month, King and Zagame, a former New York state assemblyman and D’Amato’s chief of staff in the Senate, reached out to Owens’ chief of staff and his senior legislative assistant, Jon Boughtin.
King sent Boughtin a draft itinerary in mid-October. “This gives Mr. Owens a rough idea of what he might expect if he goes,” King wrote. “It can be adjusted as per his needs and wishes to incorporate whatever other stops, or meetings, he might want to make.”
Square, Site wide
At the end of the month, Boughtin checked with King about the funding of the trip. Boughtin wanted to make sure the trip would be covered under a 1961 law called the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA).
“YES, it would be,” King replied.
The Constitution bars gifts from foreign governments to U.S. officials unless Congress specifically authorizes them. But under the MECEA law, the State Department can approve programs to promote culture exchange that are proposed by other countries. Once a program is approved 2014 Taiwan’s was OK’d in 2006 2014 members of Congress can take a qualifying trip paid by that government.
But Owens’ trip was not paid under MECEA, which strictly applies to programs funded by foreign governments. Instead, a private entity 2014 the Chinese Culture University 2014 was brought in to pay for it. Spouses and other family members are not allowed to go on MECEA trips, and Owens’ wife was to accompany him, emails show.
Park Strategies regularly asks members of Congress and staff to travel to Taiwan. For example, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) went there in October on a Park organized trip, although it was paid for under the MECEA program.
2018Whenever’s Good For Rep. Owens’
Later that month, Boughtin’s requests had shifted: Owens’ wife was now involved. “The boss and his wife are looking to travel to Taiwan beginning on December 27th,” he wrote Nov. 21.
A week later, the Chinese Culture University entered the picture. Its president sent Owens and his wife an official invitation to visit Taiwan during the dates Boughtin had specified to King.
Why was the school paying for the trip? In a filing with the House Ethics Committee, the school explained: “The Chinese Culture University aims to promote international cultural exchanges in order for it to thrive in a world increasingly engineered by an irresistible thrust towards globalization.”
The itinerary accompanying the filing was in the same format as the sample itinerary King had sent to Boughtin, and many of the stops were the same.
On Dec. 5, a few days after the university sent Owens the invitation, King traveled to Washington to meet with Owens and a staffer about the trip. The next day, Owens’ office filed a required pre-trip request form with the House Ethics Committee. On Dec. 7, D’Amato and Owens discussed the trip by phone.
Also on Dec. 7, China Airlines sent confirmation of the flight to Taiwan to a pair of Owens staffers.
There were nine more contacts between Parks Strategies lobbyists and Boughtin about the trip before Owens and his wife departed Dec. 27. During the trip itself, King had two contacts with Boughtin, and another after the trip was over Jan. 3.
Taiwan Embassy Involvement
Park Strategies appears to have proposed this kind of handoff to a private sponsor to at least one other member of Congress who wanted to travel with a family member. In one email last year, LaShaun Lesley, then the firm’s compliance coordinator, wrote to the chief of staff of Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., about a trip to Taiwan for Shuster and his son.
“About a week ago, you and I spoke about Congressman Shuster possibly travelling to Taiwan with his son and having it paid through a private sponsor,” she wrote. “In principle, we’ve been told by Taiwan’s representatives that travel to Taiwan through a private sponsor can in fact be arranged.”
The trip never happened.
As for the Owens trip, there is little evidence that the Chinese Culture University was involved other than hosting a dinner for the congressman. But Taiwanese government officials appear in many of the planning documents.
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