Pentagon Aides Who Chaperone Overseas Trips Spend K's of $ to Foster ties w/lawmakers
01-21-2010, 10:28 PM
Pentagon Aides Who Chaperone Overseas Trips Spend K's of $ to Foster ties w/lawmakers
* JANUARY 19, 2010, 8:50 P.M. ET
Military Helps Fund Congressional Trips
Records Show Pentagon Aides Who Chaperone Overseas Excursions Spend Thousands of Dollars to Foster Ties to Lawmakers
By T.W. FARNAM And BRODY MULLINS
Military officials bought thousands of dollars worth of alcohol, food and other amenities for the U.S. lawmakers they accompanied on trips overseas, travel records viewed by The Wall Street Journal show.
The documents don't show these outlays have secured any favors or favoritism from lawmakers. And the funds spent by military personnel—which ran about $4,300 per trip for the 43 trips examined by the Journal—usually account for only a small portion of the total lawmakers spend on overseas travel.
Instead, the records shed light for the first time on how the military exploits its official escort role on these trips to foster relationships with lawmakers who approve departmental budgets and top appointments. The disclosures also underscore the military's pervasive pursuit of congressional access.
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House speaker Nancy Pelosi with the Dalai Lama during a March 2008 trip to India.
Documents show that military liaisons who travel with U.S. lawmakers overseas often pick up the costs for food, alcohol and other expenses. The same military officials are also in charge of lobbying Congress.
* Military aides bought hundreds of dollars in alcohol and snacks for a delegation of ten lawmakers that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) led to England, India and Spain in March 2008.
* The military paid $8.68 for a bottle opener and a corkscrew for a December 2008 trip to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Spain led by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.).
* Lawmakers on a trip to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Hungary requested a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream
* An internal military email shows that the Army was hoping to "establish a personal connection" with Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) and get his support for a weapons program.
Indeed, the military aides who accompany lawmakers overseas are usually the same people who lobby Congress at home; their offices are in buildings shared with lawmakers.
Joel Johnson, a defense-industry analyst with the TEAL Group Corp. who once worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the situation as the equivalent of companies taking clients golfing. "These trips provide a bonding experience for the military officials and the lawmakers," he said, "and that is helpful for the military when they are seeking particular things in appropriations or authorizations."
Overseas trips are initiated by lawmakers and must be approved by committee chairmen or other congressional leaders. The lawmaker leading the delegation selects a division of the armed forces to help coordinate the trip.
When lawmakers return, congressional rules require they file a form disclosing their costs in such broad categories as transportation, meals and accommodations. But they aren't required to disclose all foreign-trip expenses. The documents obtained by the Journal show that lawmakers don't disclose much of the costs of alcohol, food and other supplies purchased for them by military liaisons.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said lawmakers aren't required to include those costs because "the whole idea of member disclosure is to disclose what members themselves spend, not what is being spent for support services they don't control."
Reported spending on overseas travel was $13 million in 2008, a tenfold increase from 1995, according to an analysis by the Journal.
When Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut—who heads the Banking Committee and ranks second on the Foreign Relations Committee—traveled to Europe in December 2008 to study banking issues, the Army dispatched an official to make sure the trip went smoothly. Records show the military gave the liaison $7,000 to cover expenses.
The documents also reveal what the Army aimed to gain from its assistance. Correspondence dated Nov. 25, 2008, between Army officials whose names were blocked out noted the trip's objectives: "1. Establish a personal connection between the Army and Senator Dodd office. 2. Create Member access through relationships. 3. Educate members of Congress on FCS," a reference to the Future Combat Systems, a multibillion-dollar modernization program favored by the Army that was killed this year by the Pentagon.
In a written statement, the Army said helping lawmakers with overseas travel was "a way to provide information about the Army to assist members of Congress and congressional staff in making fully informed decisions about Army policies, programs and budget." The Pentagon wouldn't comment further on any specific trip or purchase.
A spokesman for Mr. Dodd declined to comment.
The travel data come from military-expense records the Journal obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request. They include information on more than 100 congressional trips planned and implemented by the Air Force and Army from December 2007 to mid-2009. In 43 of the trip reports, documents include a breakdown of expenses paid by military liaisons.
Examples of the military's spending include $20,000 for baggage-handling tips, alcohol, snacks, refreshments and other "trip supplies" during a 13-day trip in January 2008 led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, to Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam. That expense was in addition to the nearly $70,000 the lawmakers made public on travel-disclosure forms they filed with Congress.
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a veteran Republican lawmaker, was also on the trip, which included 13 congressmen along with several spouses, six congressional aides, five security officials, a physician and five Air Force liaisons.
"Spending by the military is at their discretion," said Katie Grant, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hoyer. "Members have to meet all trip-disclosure requirements." Mr. Blunt's office declined to comment.
When Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) led a trip to Africa in December 2008, the military paid $3,360 for "emergency requests" for the delegation's visas. The liaisons also went to a Wal-Mart and bought $130 worth of cookies, mints and other munchies for the trip. They also spent $250 at Total Wine & More.
Jared Young, a spokesman for Mr. Inhofe, said the expedited visas were required after a last-minute change. "With the schedule change, they needed to get the visas back faster than they" expected, he said. He said the snacks provided sustenance on long flights, particularly since Mr. Inhofe's delegations don't have much time for meals on the ground.
These days, most trips are led by Democrats because most foreign travel must be approved by the party that controls Congress. Nearly all lawmakers are in a position to help the military, though, because votes on the Pentagon's budget and programs can be contentious. So, the military says it builds relationships with as many lawmakers as possible.
Before Ms. Pelosi, a California Democrat, and nine other lawmakers left for England, India and Spain in March 2008, officials from the Air Force stocked the government plane with $438.75 worth of alcohol, including three cases of beer, 15 bottles of wine, three bottles of vodka, Crown Royal, Dewar's and other liquor, records show. Air Force officials spent another $750 on chips, cakes and other snacks.
Military liaisons "are left the discretion of making these decisions and we made no requests for advance purchases," said Mr. Hammill, Ms. Pelosi's spokesman.
In all, the Air Force paid $7,328.80 for expenses incurred on the nine-day trip. Most of the money was spent on "trip supplies," as well as food and alcohol to stock hospitality suites at lawmakers' hotels. These costs weren't disclosed in lawmakers' travel reports.
In Kabul earlier this year, a group of lawmakers led by Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts asked a military liaison to purchase alcohol. A letter from the embassy reads: "On March 1, 2009 I was asked to obtain a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream…I was unable to obtain a receipt for this purchase." A handwritten note added that the purchase was made "upon the request" of Mr. Lynch.
Meaghan Maher, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lynch, said he doesn't drink alcohol and didn't request the purchase, saying his name appeared because he led the delegation. Mr. Lynch's staff has asked other people on the trip who ordered the Bailey's Irish Cream, she said, "but no one has offered any helpful information."
Write to T.W. Farnam at email@example.com and Brody Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org
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