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Lobbyists Arranged N.Y. Congressman’s $20,000 Trip To Taiwan
Posted on May 11, 2012
By Justin Elliott, ProPublica
In two November emails between King and Boughtin, the name of Frank Lee, the director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office’s congressional liaison division, comes up. On Nov. 21, Boughtin told King the final dates of the trip, adding, “I’ll reach out to Mr. Frank Lee about the details but wanted to let you know. Thanks!”
A week later, King offered more help on the trip planning. Boughtin responded, “So far so good! I think the Embassy [TECRO] has what they need from us so far, but I’ll let you know when I know more.”
Lee told ProPublica that King had reached out to TECRO about Owens traveling to Taiwan. “Sean asked me to work with the member’s office,” Lee said.
Since the Chinese Culture University doesn’t have any staff in the United States, Lee said, “Our job is to help arrange the trips.” He said TECRO did not provide any funds to the university for congressional trips, which the school has also sponsored in the past.
He said he understood that King, as a lobbyist, was not allowed to organize trips for members. But Lee said, “[King] just passed a message to this office, and we just took it over.” Asked about the email messages and contact logs showing extensive discussions between Park Strategies and Owens’ office about the trip, Lee referred questions to Park Strategies.
“While Park Strategies did ask Congressman Owens to visit Taiwan, and also offered input regarding his travel agenda, the trip was sponsored by Taiwan’s Chinese Cultural University,” Park Strategies Managing Director Christopher D’Amato said in a statement.
D’Amato, the former senator’s son, maintained the trip did not violate congressional travel rules because “lobbyist involvement in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging Members’ overseas travel is permitted for travel that is sponsored by an institute of higher education.”
There is an exception for institutions of higher education in the prohibition on lobbyist-organized trips, but it applies only to American institutions. The House rules state that lobbyists can organize trips “when the travel is sponsored by an institution of higher education within the meaning of section 101 of the Higher Education Act of 1965.” Section 101 defines schools as existing in the United States.
Park declined to comment further.
The Chinese Culture University did not check the box defining itself as an institution of higher education on its pre-trip filing with the Ethics Committee.
Owens spokesman Sean Magers told ProPublica in a statement: “Congressman Owens filed all the necessary paperwork with the House Ethics Committee and conducted the trip with their approval. The trip was planned through significant communication with the embassy of Taiwan, and we believe it was conducted within full compliance of House rules.”
The ethics committee did not offer comment in response to multiple calls.
Pitch to Taiwan Semiconductor
As part of his trip, Owens met with an executive from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to pitch the company on upstate New York, where a competing company is building a chip fabrication plant. The latter project was made possible with more than $1 billion in state incentives.
“They were receptive but not committal,” Owens told the Watertown Daily Times.
Park Strategies also represents Mohawk Valley EDGE, an economic development agency in central New York, according to a Park Strategies email from November. Officials from the Mohawk agency, which covers an area that includes part of the redrawn district in which Owens is seeking re-election, also traveled to Taiwan last summer to visit the semiconductor maker.
Park Strategies is one of the fastest-growing lobby shops in New York, having taken in more than $3 million in state and local business in 2011, according to a Newsday analysis of state lobbying records.
In the months after Owens returned from his trip, Park Strategies executives, including King, D’Amato’s brother Armand, and Christopher D’Amato, collectively donated $3,500 to Owens’ campaign. D’Amato’s wife, Katuria, also gave Owens $2,500. Owens’ contest against Republican Matt Doheny is rated a “pure tossup” by The Rothenberg Political Report.
The congressman doesn’t appear to have voted on any Taiwan issues since he returned in January. In July, just before the trip planning got under way, Park Strategies’ King asked Boughtin to have the congressman sign a letter supporting the F-16 sale to Taiwan.
Owens’ spokesman said the Taiwan letter and the trip were unrelated. Nearly 200 other lawmakers also signed the letter.
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