GROUP QUESTIONS CONGRESSMAN’S TRIP TO GUAM

admin's picture

GROUP QUESTIONS CONGRESSMAN’S TRIP TO GUAM

By Maureen Groppe

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON (Mar. 1) - After Indiana Rep. Dan Burton and two aides were treated to a December trip to Guam, paid for by the Guam government and tourism industry, Burton has backed a change to visa rules that would help Guam's tourism market. He also has held a hearing on health-care problems in Guam and other U.S. territories.

''I think that voters have to be aware of these things and realize that what these groups are doing is buying access and the undivided attention of politicians,'' said Bill Allison, spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity.

Burton's spokesman said Burton went to Guam for ''fact finding'' as part of his foreign policy duties.

''Congressman Burton's trip was conducted entirely in accordance with the rules of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and was thoroughly vetted prior to departing,'' said spokesman Nick Mutton.

Lawmakers are allowed to accept gifts from state governments, including U.S. territories such as Guam, without filing the disclosure reports required for travel paid for by private interests. But Burton's trip was subsidized by an airline and a hotel.

The government of Guam paid about $1,000 to fly Burton, his chief of staff and another aide to Guam from Taiwan, where Burton and his aides were already visiting, said Shawn Gumataotao, spokesman for Gov. Felix Camacho. The $1,000 also covered a Dec. 14-17 stay for all three at the Hyatt Regency Guam.

Round-trip, economy-class airfare for the nearly four-hour flight from Taiwan costs about $650 per person and an individual traveler would pay about $250 a night to stay at the Hyatt, said Ernie Galito, deputy general manager for the Guam Visitors Bureau.

The House rule book states that lawmakers and their aides ''may not accept a gift from a government agency where the gift was donated to the agency by a third party.''

Burton's spokesman said the trip didn't have to be disclosed because GovGuam received the regular discounted government rate for travel.

But Galito said GovGuam didn't get the standard rate for government travel from the hotel and Continental Micronesia Airlines, but ''special rates negotiated by the Guam Visitors Bureau for the special opportunity to host Representative Burton during his trip to Taiwan.''

Galito said the businesses were willing to discount their services to have a ''ranking member of Congress visit Guam and see firsthand what our tourism infrastructure is and how dependent our economy is on the success of tourism.''

Burton is a senior member of the Republican majority in the House. He chairs a House Government Reform Committee panel on Wellness and Human Rights and sits on the House International Relations Committee's panel on Asia and the Pacific.

Guam hopes to expand its tourism industry by making it easier to tap into the growing Chinese tourist market. Chinese citizens must apply for a U.S. visa to enter Guam. The industry would like a different, expedited process for tourists coming from three Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Burton wrote a letter in February to Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking him to consider a ''Guam-Only Visa'' program with China.

Gumataotao called the letter ''very helpful'' and said it was Burton's idea to write it.

Before he testified at Burton's hearing Wednesday on health-care disparities in the Pacific island territories, Camacho thanked Burton for accepting his invitation to come to the island.

''It's not too often that we have members of Congress come out to see for themselves the problems we face,'' Camacho told Burton.

During Burton's visit, he toured health-care facilities, backed the need for more funding and discussed holding a hearing, Gumataotao said.

Burton's visit also included a tour of military facilities and participation in a charity golf tournament organized by the governor. Camacho personally paid the $180 entrance fee to the tournament for Burton, an avid golfer, Gumataotao said.

''He just wanted to have his friend play with him,'' the spokesman said.

Other participants included government officials, members of the Guam Chamber of Commerce and Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association, and teachers and parents interested in the charity's goal of raising money for textbooks, Gumataotao said.

The U.S. House voted in 1995 to crack down on lawmakers' acceptance of meals, trips and gifts. The new rules included a ban on members accepting travel to charity golf tournaments, although the rules have since been loosened.

Burton offered an unsuccessful amendment in 1995 to limit the changes, arguing that all gifts should just be reported.

''The answer,'' Burton said during the floor debate, ''is complete and full disclosure. Let the American people know what we are doing and let them be the judge.''

Lawmakers and their aides are required to file disclosure reports within 30 days of returning from a trip paid for by a private source.

Burton arrived in Guam in mid-December after a trip to Taiwan where he met with Taiwan's president and business leaders. The Taipei-based Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association picked up the $7,250 tab for the Taiwan trip for Burton's chief of staff, Mark Walker. Only Walker filed a travel report for the Taiwan trip.

Burton did not file a report for himself and his other aide. His office would not name the other aide or say who paid for their travel.

''All reports and forms that are required by the House rules for members and staff travel disclosure have been filed,'' Mutton said.

Government watchdog groups such as the Center for Public Integrity and Common Cause are generally critical of Congress for loopholes in its gift rules and for lax oversight.

Allison said it doesn't sound like Burton followed ''either the letter, or certainly the spirit, of the rule'' on travel.

''The ethics committees simply have not been enforcing ethics rules,'' Allison said. ''This is a real problem. Outside of reporters and groups like us that follow these fairly closely, nobody is really paying attention to them.''

March 1, 2004

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

 

 

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment