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Ethics committee closes review of Roskam trip

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 8:36 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

WASHINGTON (MCT) - Citing "insufficient evidence" that a $25,000 trip to Taiwan by Rep. Peter Roskam and his wife was improper, the House Ethics Committee said Friday that it was closing its review of the matter with no finding of wrongdoing.

While the committee said that Roskam had fully cooperated, it noted that Taiwanese officials with information "material" to the review had refused to help the committee sort out the matter.

The office of the Wheaton congressman, who is fourth in the House Republican leadership, welcomed the panel's decision to end its review.

"The House Ethics Committee's unanimous, bipartisan vote to close this case without finding any wrongdoing confirms what Rep. Roskam has said all along - that he and his staff have complied with all laws, rules and procedures related to privately sponsored travel," Roskam spokeswoman Stephanie Kittredge said in a statement.

At issue was whether the listed sponsor of the Roskams' trip, Chinese Culture University, indeed picked up the tab and helped arrange it, or whether the true sponsor was the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, or TECRO, Taiwan's de facto embassy.

The House Ethics Committee began examining the trip at the urging of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which had found there was "substantial reason to believe" that Roskam accepted travel expenses "from an impermissible source, resulting in an impermissible gift."

In its 22-page report Friday, the House Ethics Committee looked at the Roskams' trip in October 2011 as well as a trip to Taiwan later that year by Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y., and his wife. Owens told House officials that Chinese Culture University paid the couple's expenses. But he reimbursed the university in May after lobbyists' involvement in his trip was reported by ProPublica.

After reviewing both trips, the Ethics Committee said it appeared that TECRO "remained completely involved in the planning and organizing of these trips. CCU's only involvement with the actual itinerary appears to have been meeting with the members during a few hours of the trips."

Except in certain cases, foreign governments may not bankroll travel by U.S. lawmakers. When they do sponsor trips under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, or MECEA, no travel money may flow to family members. Private sponsors such as CCU, on the other hand, can pay for lawmakers' relatives if the trips are approved by the Ethics Committee.

Both Roskam and Owens originally planned on taking MECEA trips to Taiwan, but those plans changed, with CCU listed as the sponsor and paying for them and their spouses. CCU and TECRO are outside of the ethics panel's power to compel testimony, and neither cooperated in the review, the committee said.

The Roskams' $25,653 trip to Taiwan on Oct.15-22, 2011, occurred while their daughter Gracey was teaching English there.

In its report, the Ethics Committee included an email on June 7, 2011, to Roskam from Mike Dankler, a Roskam staffer. In the subject field, the email said: "Taiwan Itinerary."

"The first two days would be official stuff," Dankler wrote. He described a half-hour being set aside for "a visit to the school" and said that was probably too short, "but basically Thursday and Friday morning would be sort of at your leisure to explore the area - Sun Moon Lake where you'd be staying is supposed to be a very nice resort area - with E & Gracey so they gave you plenty of quality time together (assuming Gracey can get off for it)."

"E" apparently refers to Elizabeth Roskam, the lawmaker's wife.

The trip's itinerary evolved between the June email and the October trip. But Roskam's post-travel disclosure report to the House described two days of meetings with government officials and four days of sightseeing.

The Ethics Committee report said that "the rationale of having 'leisure' or 'quality time' with one's family in 'a very nice resort area' as discussed in the background on the trip is not a permissible, officially connected purpose for privately sponsored travel, and if committee staff had been aware of that connection and intent, additional questions would have been asked, at least."

But the report also stated: "The mere fact that his wife and daughter were with him does not diminish the value of the fact-finding activity or make the activities impermissible."

In Taiwan, Roskam spoke at a conference where, according to a YouTube video, he called for the sale of F-16 C/D fighter jets to Taiwan. The aircraft are manufactured by Lockheed Martin and, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the firm's political action committee has given Roskam $15,000 since 2009.

Gracey Roskam taught at the Chen Shan Mei American School from June 2011 to March 2012, according to a biography at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where she now works. A YouTube video from the Roskams' visit to the school features children singing songs including "Jingle Bell Rock" as the parents snapped photos.

Another Roskam daughter worked as a high school volunteer intern for TECRO for about three weeks in the summer of 2011, an earlier report from the Office of Congressional Ethics said.

The Ethics Committee, in a footnote to its report, noted that its staff had reviewed more than 2,000 requests for privately sponsored travel in 2011. Both members and aides may take such trips, which must be approved by the committee.

"Members are simply urged to exercise extreme caution" when the nature or sponsor of a trip changes and contact the committee, the report said.

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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