Despite a new ethics law designed to prevent lobbyists from paying for lush vacations for members of Congress, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., found a way to get someone else to pay for their travel to one of Hawaii's top resorts, ABC News has found. A full report will air tonight on "World News With Charles Gibson" as part of the ABC News Money Trail series.
Lobbyists for an aviation industry trade group, the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), arranged to throw fundraisers for both key lawmakers at the group's annual conference this January on Hawaii's Big Island, amidst beautiful beaches and championship golf courses. The arrangement, first suggested by the lobbyists, allowed Inouye and Lungren to bill their trips as legitimate campaign fundraising expenses, meaning they didn't have to pay a dime of their own money.
"If the lobbyist is paying the campaign and the campaign is actually writing the checks, it's a shell game," said Ellen Miller of the watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation. "It is still lobbyist money influencing lawmakers."
Campaign documents examined by ABC News show that Lungren billed his campaign $ 4,900 for lodging and first-class travel for him and his wife. Lungren told ABC News he needed to fly first-class because of an ailing hip. Inouye also billed his campaign for his trip expenses, but his staff would not disclose the precise amount.
Lungren, dressed in a festive yellow Hawaiian shirt, spent about a half hour addressing the members of the trade group and much of the rest of the time could be seen around the pool of the Hapuna Beach Prince resort.
"Organizations have their conventions usually at nice places," Rep. Lungren told ABC News. "I'll admit I like to go to that particular one."
Lungren, a member of a key committee that oversees airport security issues, insisted he carried out important discussions with airport executives while at the pool. "I'm a California kid," Rep. Lungren told ABC News. "I grew up around pools. We do a lot of business around pools." Asked if he would have attended if the January conference were held in Pittsburgh, Lungren said, "Do I look like I go to Pittsburgh in January?"
Inouye, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said through a spokesman that his time at the conference was part of a nine-day "work trip" to his home state, for which he brought four staffers. His travel costs were paid by the campaign. Travel costs for four aides were charged to taxpayers, according to the spokesperson.
Until the passage of the new congressional ethics reform law, the aviation lobbying group had spent almost $650,000 flying members of Congress and their aides to meetings around the world, including the yearly gathering in Hawaii. But at this year's meeting, many of the usual suspects were missing. Congressman Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Ky., sent his regrets on tape, by song, bemoaning, "You don't buy me lunches. You don't throw me fundraisers anymore." Rogers declined to comment to ABC News.
At this year's opening reception, a whole pig was roasted on a spit while federal officials and lawmakers rubbed shoulders with executives from every corner of the aviation industry.