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Democrats Challenge Rep. Pombo's Expenses

They say taxpayers were billed for a vacation, and question an aide's use of funds for commuting.

February 15, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), already under fire for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is being accused by Democrats of billing the government for a family vacation and violating House rules by letting his committee staff director live in California and charge taxpayers for the commute to Washington.

Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy said the congressman considered the accusations by Democrats "nothing more than a baseless, partisan, election-year potshot." Pombo was unavailable for comment.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has issued a statement and posted video commercials on its website questioning Pombo's "taxpayer-funded vacation" to several national parks in August 2003, the year he became chairman of the influential House Resources Committee.

The Democrats said that Pombo billed taxpayers $4,935 for an RV rental, but basically turned the trip into a family vacation.

Steve Filson, a Democrat running for Pombo's seat in this fall's congressional election, has asked the House Administration Committee to investigate. If that panel finds a problem, it could refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee.

Pombo has said that the trip he took with his family included business because he met with park officials. As chairman of the resources panel, his responsibilities include national parks and forests. He has called the RV rental a legitimate taxpayers' expense.

However, officials at two of the national parks Pombo said he visited -- Joshua Tree in California and Badlands in South Dakota -- said the congressman never met with them.

"We had set up camping for him and gone to a lot of work and then he did not show," Pam Livermont, secretary for the park superintendent at Badlands National Park, said Tuesday. "He did not alert any personnel that he wasn't coming, and we never heard another word from him. We were disappointed."

The Tracy Press, Pombo's hometown newspaper, reported that officials at Joshua Tree did not recall him visiting there either.

Kennedy insisted that Pombo had shown up at Joshua Tree for his meeting but "they were not there," something the congressman later mentioned to National Park Service Director Fran P. Mainella. And Kennedy said Pombo was certain he was at the Badlands and met with a group of Native American tribal leaders nearby.

Kennedy said the trip lasted 10 to 12 days and that Pombo visited five states and about 10 national parks and forests. He added that the committee staff "arranged meetings with various park and forest superintendents."

Kennedy said Pombo could have taken airplanes and stayed at expensive hotels, costing taxpayers $25,000 or more. Instead, Kennedy said, Pombo rented the RV and then decided to "take his family along at no additional cost to the taxpayer."

Partisan political accusations often are made by the party out of power in Congress, and the calls to investigate Pombo and his aide come as the lawmaker has found himself under public scrutiny for his ties to Abramoff.

They also come as Pombo is being challenged in the June Republican primary by former Rep. Paul "Pete" McCloskey, a longtime maverick who is trying to restart his political career by attacking Pombo's connections to Abramoff and his efforts to weaken environmental laws.

Separately, Reps. George Miller of Martinez and Ellen O. Tauscher of Alamo, two Democratic House members whose districts are relatively near Pombo's, wrote the House Administration Committee on Feb. 1 to request an investigation into Pombo aide Steven Ding and his "questionable use of a significant amount of taxpayer funds."

Ding serves as Pombo's staff director on the House Resources Committee, but lives in Stockton -- commuting to Washington when the House is in session. He also works as a personal aide to Pombo in the district.

Ding did not return phone calls. But he recently told the Contra Costa Times, a newspaper in Pombo's district, that he may have violated rules by spending $87,000 in taxpayer money on travel, meals and lodging going to Washington and back and not properly reporting it.

Pombo responded in a letter to the House Administration Committee on Feb. 2 that Ding's presence in Washington was "a requirement to effectively execute both his jobs." He asked the committee's guidance on whether the arrangement was "proper and, if it is not, what steps should be done to correct it."

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