World travelers

Posted: Jul 07, 2005 12:00 AM

Rep. Nancy Pelosi is in trouble.

 As House Democratic Leader, she is primed to go after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for his ethical lapses. She has called for an investigation of a $70,000 trip made by DeLay, his wife and aides to the United Kingdom, possibly bankrolled by a lobbyist. Others have assailed DeLay for a 2001 trip to South Korea funded by a registered foreign agent.

 But a funny thing happened on Pelosi's way to hers ethics coup: She ran afoul of the same rules she hurls at DeLay.

 As The Washington Post reported, last week Pelosi filed delinquent reports for three trips she herself accepted from outside sponsors. The biggie was a week-long 1999 trip to Taiwan, paid for by the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce. The tab for Pelosi and her husband: about $8,000.

 Just last month, Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider told Roll Call that Pelosi's "position is that the rules are clear; people need to follow them." Within days, Pelosi had to re-file because she failed to follow these "clear" rules.

 Here's another glitch: A senior aide to Pelosi, Eddie Charmaine Manansala, went on a 2004 $9,887 trip sponsored by the same Korea-U.S. Exchange Council -- then failed to file the mandated paperwork until a reporter asked about the trip.

  And while Pelosi bashes GOP ethics, PoliticalMoneyLine, a data firm, crunched the numbers and found that in the last five years, Democrats took 3,458 privately funded junkets, while Republicans took 2,666.

 PoliticalMoneyLine quipped: "Join Congress -- See the World."

 Are these trips unethical or illegal? I'll answer the second part first. House rules prohibit junkets funded by lobbyists. But it's not clear that there has been a rules violation if a congressman was not aware that a lobbyist paid for the trip.

 What's more, the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council wasn't registered as a foreign agent when the DeLay trip was planned. In fact, the group registered as a foreign agent only days before DeLay and company departed -- three years before Pelosi's aide trekked Seoul-ward.

 Are these trips ethical? Consider DeLay's Seoul trip and Pelosi's Taiwan travel to fall into gray territory. On the one hand, elected officials see a new part of the world; on the other hand, they see what their sponsors want them to see.

  Ken Boehm of the conservative watchdog the National Legal and Policy Center noted a big hole in House rules: "The dirty little secret is that it's legal if it's sponsored by a nonprofit. It's not legal if it's sponsored by the lobbyist." But lobbyists can be on charity boards or join the junkets. Besides, whether you call them lobbyists or not, these groups have a clear agenda. Taiwanese or Korean, they want to boost commerce with their countries.

 In a March press conference, Pelosi said that "every trip should be subjected to scrutiny." She also erroneously asserted, "we all have to be careful about whom we receive invitations from, and I haven't taken any trips."

 Certainly, DeLay's 2000 U.K. trip flunks the smell test. Even if it was legal, it suggests an arrogance and sense of entitlement that says DeLay looks at public office, not so much as public service, but as privileged rank.

  "There's a difference in degree here," Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly noted, especially if DeLay solicited the trip.

  I agree. There is a big difference in degree. But there is not a big difference in the level of opportunism between DeLay and Pelosi.

 As Ed Patru of the National Republican Congressional Committee noted, Pelosi has made "ethics the centerpiece of the Democratic Party's message," yet she is the only "the only minority leader who has been hit with fines for fund-raising violations."

 Daly wasn't sure if Pelosi was the only minority leader to be fined. That's nice.

 Pelosi spent seven years in House ethics committees. Nonetheless, the Federal Election Commission fined her after Team Pelosi created a second political action committee to skirt a $5,000 gift limit. "The main reason for the creation of the second PAC, frankly, was to give twice as much dollars," her treasurer, Leo McCarthy, told Roll Call.

 (Daly argued that some at the FEC told McCarthy the second PAC was kosher, a charge the FEC has denied.) Tom DeLay should be in hotter water.

 But he is not because Pelosi's hits on him are so opportunistic, you can't take them seriously. Her office notes that the U.S. Korean group was a registered foreign agent -- even after a Pelosi aide traveled on that foreign agent's dime, and didn't report it. She says she supports ethics rules, then tries to skirt them.

 It's that kind of talk that leads Americans to hate Washington. Some pols have so little shame, they're happy to give ethics a bad name.