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Lawmaker's Free Trip Is Questioned

Rep. Solomon Ortiz got a courthouse named for a judge, whose son paid for the visit to Asia.

November 02, 2005|Chuck Neubauer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Political favors take many forms in this town, where congressional leaders have been treated to golf tours in Scotland and major campaign donors have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Now comes a South Texas congressman taking a free trip to Asia a month after getting a federal courthouse named for the father of a lawyer who paid for the lawmaker's trip.

Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, a Corpus Christi Democrat, called it a coincidence.

"The timing of events never occurred to me, but I do understand how two events out of context could beg the question," Ortiz said in a written statement.

Already there are calls for an ethics investigation.

"A congressman may not accept a trip as a thank-you," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She urged the House Ethics Committee to look into "the circumstances surrounding the trip."

For seven years, Ortiz had worked to win congressional approval for his bill naming a federal building in his district after two judges -- finally clearing the way this summer for the Reynaldo G. Garza and Filemon B. Vela U.S. Courthouse in Brownsville, Texas.

Then, Filemon B. Vela Jr., a Texas trial lawyer and son of the late judge, picked up the $22,200 tab for Ortiz's and his chief of staff's two-week Asia trip.

Vela also called that sequence -- and his earlier campaign donations -- a coincidence.

"Neither the trip nor the campaign contributions had anything to do with the naming of the courthouse," Vela said in a statement forwarded by Ortiz's office.

House ethics rules prohibit members from taking gifts that might be tied to their official actions, admonishing members to avoid even the appearance of a link. Sloan and others have sought more aggressive oversight of congressional travel.

Over the last five years, private interests have picked up $19 million in expenses for 6,441 congressional trips, according to an analysis of lawmakers' travel disclosure statements by PoliticalMoneyLine, a Washington company that tracks special-interest money.

Ortiz, whose district spreads along the southernmost Texas Gulf Coast, has taken 14 privately funded trips to the Far East since 2000 at a cost of $95,679, according to PoliticalMoneyLine's database.

The 12-term Democrat, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Resources Committee, said his travels were intended to generate jobs and foreign investments in his district.

But of all of Ortiz's trips to Asia, the one that Vela Jr. financed stands out: Vela's Corpus Christi law office paid the costs.

It is unusual for an individual or a law office to sponsor a congressional trip. Most are financed by think tanks, advocacy groups or firms seeking lawmakers to speak to them or to go on fact-finding trips.

House ethics rules say that private parties may pay for trips only to events or locations in which they have direct ties.

Vela sponsored the trip as a private citizen, said Ortiz's press aide, Cathy Travis.

Vela said he and his wife, Rose, a local Texas judge, were planning their own Asia trip, primarily for pleasure and so that he could explore possible business opportunities. He invited Ortiz and his top aide, Vela said, because his wife was nervous about venturing into China.

"Being well aware of Congressman Ortiz's and [his aide's] familiarity with China, I asked them if they were thinking of going to China in that time frame, and it turned out that they were. So, I invited them to go knowing my wife would feel much more comfortable if we were with them," Vela said in his written response.

His invitation came in May or June, after the courthouse-naming bill had passed the House and awaited expected Senate approval, Travis said.

The effort to name the Brownsville courthouse dates to the late 1990s, while it was under construction. There was a movement to name it after Reynaldo G. Garza, who in 1961 became the first Latino federal judge.

In 1998, Ortiz took up the cause in the House. His legislation sought to name the building after Judge Garza -- and added Judge Filemon B. Vela.

Vela Sr. had been instrumental in winning federal approval to build the courthouse, completed in 1999. The judge's wife, Blanca, served as mayor of Brownsville.

Records show that Vela Jr. contributed $1,000 to the Ortiz campaign fund seven weeks before the congressman's original courthouse-naming bill was introduced.

Ortiz introduced that bill four times. He said his efforts were initially blocked because both judges were still living, and federal buildings traditionally are named for people only after their deaths.

Both judges died last year within five months of each other, and Ortiz renewed his efforts. The bill won House approval for a second time in the fall of 2004.

Vela Jr. donated $2,000 to the Ortiz campaign fund in October 2004. It was received three weeks after the House approved the courthouse-naming bill. But Congress adjourned before the Senate could act.

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