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Golf, and Playing by the Rules

THE NATION

Lobbyist who arranged a junket for DeLay also set up St. Andrews trips for two of his colleagues.

March 09, 2005|Chuck Neubauer and Walter F. Roche Jr. | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A group of congressional figures has joined House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) under an ethics cloud stemming from foreign golf junkets arranged by a lobbyist facing influence-peddling investigations.

DeLay landed in trouble last month over a 2000 trip to Scotland with the lobbyist. But two other congressmen and three House aides also played St. Andrews on separate junkets with the lobbyist that may have violated House rules, records show.

And, like the Texas Republican, all omitted disclosing the key role of beleaguered lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He privately raised tens of thousands of dollars for private jets and boasted of setting up golf junkets, according to documents, congressional testimony and interviews.

One of Abramoff's golf guests was Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the little-known but powerful House Administration Committee. He said in congressional filings that his trip on a chartered jet in 2002 was sponsored and paid for by an obscure conservative think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research.

But the center's president told the Los Angeles Times that it "did not sponsor, nor did we pay" for Ney's travels.

The same nonprofit organization also was listed by then-freshman Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) after he flew to Scotland with the lobbyist in August 2003. But in response to inquiries by The Times, the center said it did not provide "a single dime" for the Feeney junket.

Members of Congress routinely travel as guests of educational and policy groups, but they cannot accept trips or gifts from lobbyists.

The think tank's blunt contradictions of the congressmen's reports raise questions about whether Ney and Feeney violated House rules and filed false documents to disguise gifts from a lobbyist.

It is the latest twist in a mounting ethics scandal surrounding one of Washington's most prominent lobbyists.

Ney and Feeney, through spokesmen, blamed others for any filing errors.

"It was the congressman's understanding that this trip was permissible under House rules," said Brian J. Walsh, communications director for Ney. He said it was "based on representations" by Abramoff that the National Center sponsored their travel.

Feeney's chief of staff expressed surprise. "You are the first to inform me of the information being incorrect," said Jason Roe.

He said any false information would be "the result of someone misleading" the congressman, "not any nefarious activity on his part."

In a statement last week, the think tank said it paid for DeLay, his wife and others to visit London and meet with British political leaders. There was no mention of the golf excursions that were, according to documents and Senate testimony, arranged by Abramoff.

Abramoff, among the most powerful Republican lobbyists on Capitol Hill over the last decade, is the focus of inquiries by a federal grand jury and a U.S. Senate committee.

The criminal investigation appears to be a sweeping probe of Abramoff's lobbying practice, based on interviews with witnesses and published accounts.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is looking into allegations that Abramoff and a former DeLay aide bilked six Indian tribes out of millions of dollars in lobbying and public relations fees.

Justice Department and Indian Affairs Committee officials declined to discuss their investigations.

Both DeLay and Ney have helped Abramoff and his clients.

At the time of his Scotland trip in 2002, for example, Ney was attempting to amend a bill to aid an Abramoff tribal client in Texas.

Ney came to Abramoff's aid two years earlier on another case. He took to the House floor to castigate the owner of a Florida-based gambling cruise ship company that Abramoff was trying to purchase.

And before his 2000 golf trip, DeLay blocked legislation, strongly opposed by Abramoff's clients, to end use of low-wage workers in Pacific island sweatshops.

Early details of Abramoff's role in the golf junkets emerged during a Senate hearing in November.

A consultant to a Texas tribe represented by Abramoff testified that the lobbyist had told him he needed $100,000 to pay for Ney and his contingent's golf trip to Scotland. Abramoff also told the consultant that he had arranged a similar golf trip for DeLay in 2000, according to the testimony.

Abramoff paid $72,000 from a personal business account to charter a jet in advance of the Ney trip, records released by a Senate committee show.

Since the scandal broke last fall, Ney has distanced himself from Abramoff.

In a written statement Nov. 17, Ney expressed shock and disgust at the "duplicitous, immoral and possibly criminal behavior" of the lobbyist.

Feeney had not previously been tied to the Abramoff controversy.

He was first elected to Congress in 2002 after serving a decade in the Florida Legislature, the last two years as speaker of the state House of Representatives. He lost a bid for Florida lieutenant governor during Jeb Bush's first failed campaign for governor.

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