Monday, January 20, 2014

Faleomavaega Still Finds Ways to Travel

When the Democrats took over Congress in 2007, it meant at long last Del. Faleomavaega (D-AS) would find himself in the majority with enough seniority to be given a subcommittee to chair.  Not that he lacked the means to travel earlier in his career (how many Members do you think have visited Thursday Island in the Torres Straits once, let alone twice?), but as various waves of reform have swept over Congress in the past quarter century—especially in the wake of the Abramoff scandals, the rules have been drawn tighter and tighter around the travel process.

But giving Eni a gavel meant giving him a budget, and that was like sending a child into a candy store with a couple of bucks to spend.  To make his travel life even sweeter, House Democrats even tacked onto his portfolio “Global Environment,” which gave him license to travel anywhere his heart desired.  So, when there was unrest over land rights in Rapanui, an integral part of Chile, thus not under the jurisdiction of the foreign affairs committee, there was no question in our mind that the roving delegate would find a rationale to make his way there anyway—and he sure did.  One place he did not go, however, was Copenhagen for a U.N. conference on climate change.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a planeload of House members but somehow the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing “Global Environment” got left off the manifest.

But we digress.  The National Journal magazine has published an article titled “How Lobbyists Still Fly Through Loopholes” and it should not surprise anyone that our South Pacific flyboy is among the Members of Congress featured.  Says the Journal: "It's widely believed that the 2007 rewrite of congressional travel rules spurred by the scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison banned such international dalliances. But that's far, far from true. A National Journal investigation has found that despite efforts to clip the wings of congressional travel planned and paid for by special interests, lawmakers are again taking flight. Indeed, the reality is that lobbyists who can't legally buy a lawmaker a sandwich can still escort members on trips all around the world.”

NJ outlines the various ways lobbyists get around the rules and focused on a trip to Taiwan in 2012 as one example.  On their travel reports, two Democrats each listed Fu Jen Catholic University as the sole sponsor of their $27,000 week long journeys.  What's more, the itinerary said that Faleomavaega joined Reps. Boren and Ross for large chunks of the trip. But Fu Jen didn't pay for Faleomavaega's free trip the Taiwanese government arranged it through the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA) program.

The 1961 MECEA law allows foreign governments to shuttle members of Congress and their staffs abroad if the State Department has approved the destination nations for "cultural exchange" trips. About 60 countries have such clearances. Despite the 2007 post-Abramoff travel law, lobbyists are still able to plan and attend these MECEA journeys.

“How did trips planned and paid for by a private university so seamlessly mesh with one planned and paid for by the government,” asks the Journal?  “Fu Jen and the Taiwanese government wouldn't say. They declined to answer specific questions.”  

Readers of this blog will remember our April 3, 2012 post which covered a report in the ProPublica investigative news service, which focuses on ethics in government.  They reported that Faleomavaega traveled to Bahrain under MECEA funding at the behest of a friend who was a Bahrain lobbyist.  We speculated that the exposé could hurt him in his bid for the full committee ranking member slot and ultimately he was passed over for the position, even though eventually he did throw his lobbyist friend under the bus to try to save himself by reversing his position on Bahrain.

So it is no surprise that Faleomavaega was able to maintain his brutal travel schedule when he sank back into the minority in 2011 and "Global Environment” was eliminated from the Asia-Pacific subcommittee, to which he returned as (and remains) Ranking Minority Member.  Considering he, himself, spoke of his poor health during his 2012 re-election campaign, almost boastfully acknowledging having had knee, heart and eye surgery, as well as being diabetic, having high blood pressure and other ailments, including being obese, it then came as no surprise either that it was during travel that he suffered what appears to be a stroke in October.  He still has refused to confirm his medical condition but his office has not refuted it was a stroke. 

Ironically, it was on one of his rare trips back to American Samoa that he fell ill and had to be medivaced back to the states.  He can be thankful it did not happen on Thursday Island, Rapanui, Kazakhstan, Mururoa Atoll, the jungles of West Papua or any of the other exotic haunts he frequents.  MECEA or not, the only flying he seems likely to do doing at any time soon will be from Utah to Washington, DC.  Whether lobbyists can come up with a creative way to cart around the world a delegate who now adds stroke to his list of ailments remains to be seen.

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