Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson quoted a House ethics rule that forbids House members from accepting travel expenses from lobbyists, then immediately suggested that lobbyist Jack Abramoff's purchase of airline tickets for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) for a lavish trip to Great Britain in 2000 lies in an ethical "gray area." Discussing The Washington Post's recent report that Abramoff used a personal credit card to pay for the airline tickets for DeLay and several associates, Wilson declined to point out that the rule is explicit in prohibiting such an arrangement.
After noting the charges to Abramoff's credit card on the April 25 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume, Wilson stated that Abramoff "reportedly submitted those charges for reimbursement" from a nonprofit group that supposedly sponsored the trip, the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR). After wondering aloud, "Was this a violation of the House rules?" Wilson answered his own question by quoting a House ethics committee rule that forbids House members from accepting travel expenses from lobbyists "even where the lobbyist ... or firm will later be reimbursed for those expenses by a non-lobbyist client."
Yet after quoting the rule, Wilson concluded, implausibly: "[T]he gray area here is the fact that this lobbyist was on the board of a nonprofit group." While only the House ethics committee has the authority to determine that DeLay's trip was a violation, the rule makes no exception for lobbyists who are on the board of a "non-lobbyist client," and therefore Abramoff's status as a member of NCPPR's board does not present any ambiguity under the rule.
Further, the Post reported that many of DeLay's expenses during the same trip, for "food, phone calls and other items at a golf course hotel in Scotland," were paid for "by a second registered Washington lobbyist, Edwin A. Buckham," who was not an NCPPR board member. Wilson failed to note these additional payments.
Moreover, Wilson's statement that Abramoff "reportedly" sought reimbursement from NCPPR is apparently based not on a "report" from an impartial source, but rather on a statement by DeLay's attorney, Bobby R. Burchfield, who told the Post that "to the extent that Mr. Abramoff put the charges on his personal credit card, Mr. DeLay has no knowledge of this. But that would be consistent with Mr. Abramoff obtaining full reimbursement from the National Center." But the Post also noted that there is no evidence to show "whether some of the charges incurred by Abramoff were ultimately reimbursed and, if so, by whom."
From the April 25 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume:
HUME: Meanwhile, some national news media are still reporting Tom DeLay's past activities and raising new questions. Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson joins us with more on that. Brian, what is the latest?
WILSON: Well, Brit, a lot of buzz about a Washington Post story over the weekend revealing that airfare for DeLay's trip to London and Scotland in 2000 was charged to an American Express account belonging to a lobbyist by the name of Jack Abramoff. Now, at the time, Abramoff served on the board of the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy Research and reportedly submitted those charges for reimbursement. The question, since it's legal for nonprofit groups to sponsor such trips: Was this a violation of the House rules? We found this guidance on the House ethics committee website, quote: "The prohibition against accepting travel expenses from a registered lobbyist ... or a lobbying firm applies even where the lobbyist ... or firm will later be reimbursed for those House expenses by a non-lobbyist client."
Now, DeLay's press secretary says the congressman believed -- and believes -- the nonprofit center paid for the trip and that DeLay had no knowledge about bill-paying logistics. DeLay even signed the form that must be filled out any time a member of Congress takes a trip paid with private funds. His signature would have appeared below a declaration that the expenses were necessary and did not create the appearance of using public office for private gain.
DeLay will be with the president tomorrow at an event in Galveston, Texas. We're told that DeLay and other prominent Texas politicians will be in the audience, not on the stage. DeLay returns to Washington, however, aboard Air Force One, and White House spokesman Trent Duffy told Fox News today the president continues to support DeLay. Brit.
HUME: So it's OK under House rules for these outside private groups to pay for trips, but just not for lobbyists to pay for trips?
WILSON: That's the way it is, and the gray area here is the fact that this lobbyist was on the board of a nonprofit group.
HUME: OK, Brian. Thank you.