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Lobbyist paid for travel by DeLay aides

Two Democrats also took trip to Pacific islands

WASHINGTON -- The office of Tom DeLay, House majority leader, says a US territorial government was supposed to pay for travel by two of his staff aides to a Pacific islands commonwealth. Two Democratic representatives filed disclosure forms saying a nonprofit group paid their expenses to the same place.

They all were at least partly wrong, according to lobbying firm records obtained by the Associated Press. The expenses were paid initially by lobbyist Jack Abramoff or his former firm, despite House rules prohibiting lobbyists from paying for the travel of lawmakers or their aides.

Congressional Democrats to propose tightening of lobbying regulations. A7.

It's not clear to this day whether the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands partly or fully reimbursed Abramoff or the Preston Gates law and lobbying firm that hired him. The nonprofit group says it never paid a dime.

DeLay's aides traveled to the islands in December 1996. Democratic Representatives James E. Clyburn of South Carolina and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi went there in January 1997.

Preston Gates, shown its own internal documents by the AP, said in a statement: ''We're looking into it. Some things we're learning about just now."

Abramoff, whose lobbying is under criminal investigation, pressed his clients, the Northern Marianas government, to reimburse him for the travel because of concerns the payments might draw scrutiny from the House committee that probes lawmakers' conduct, the documents show.

''I . . . expect to receive a call tomorrow or Tuesday from the House ethics committee, asking for an update as to the reimbursement situation and, possibly, our outstanding bill. They are watching the trips very closely," Abramoff wrote a Marianas official in December 1996.

Ethical questions also have been raised about whether DeLay's air fare to London and Scotland in 2000 was charged to an Abramoff credit card, and whether other expenses on the same trip were billed to a credit card used by Ed Buckham, DeLay's former chief of staff, who had become a lobbyist by that time.

DeLay is facing a congressional inquiry over accusations that lobbyists paid for some of his oversees travel, and his campaign fund-raising practices and ties to lobbyists have been widely questioned. Three of his political aides in Texas have been indicted on charges of illegally raising money from corporations.

Abramoff and Preston Gates represented the Pacific island government. One priority was to persuade Congress to block Clinton administration efforts to regulate alleged ''sweatshop" garment factories. The rules never were enacted.

The records state Preston Gates paid hotel and air fare for both Thompson and Clyburn.

Clyburn said in an interview he had never heard of Abramoff at the time, and provided a copy of a letter showing he was invited by the nonprofit foundation. ''That's all I know about it," he said. Thompson did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

The Preston Gates billing documents also included a hotel bill for Buckham, who was DeLay's chief of staff in 1996, as well as travel upgrades for Buckham and another DeLay aide at the time, Tony Rudy. DeLay was then majority whip, third-ranking House Republican.

The documents show Abramoff used his credit card to pay for some congressional travel to the islands, and then sent urgent e-mails because the territorial government was slow in paying, leaving the travelers possibly in violation of House rules.

''Per instructions from Preston, we have been using Jack Abramoff's credit card for past tickets," a travel agent e-mailed the island government on Dec. 11, 1996, regarding air fare. ''I have been asked to contact you regarding direct payment . . . for future tickets."

DeLay spokesman Dan Allen said his office believes the aides' trip expenses were paid by the Northern Marianas government, not Abramoff.

''The office's understanding is both traveled to CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) in 1996 at the invitation of the Northern Marianas, a territory of the United States," Allen said.

''Under House ethics rules, House employees may accept travel paid for by a governmental entity with no restrictions on the staff's ability to accept travel by such a governmental entity -- whether in terms of trip duration, accompanying individuals or otherwise."

DeLay's office did not report the trip in House disclosure records. Allen said disclosure wasn't necessary since a US territorial government was paying for the trip.

An Abramoff spokesman, Andrew Blum, said Monday: ''The tradition of lobbyists traveling with members of Congress to visit various jurisdictions so that they could learn about issues that impact the Congress and government policy is well known. Mr. Abramoff once again is being singled for actions that are commonplace in Washington and are totally proper."

Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics rules and campaign finance, said lawmakers and their aides probably would avoid any findings of wrongdoing by demonstrating they had no knowledge of the lobbyist payments.

''If a member generally doesn't know what's going on, it's hard to see how the member would be held to violate ethics rules," he said.

The lawmakers were invited to the Marianas by a nonprofit organization, the National Security Caucus Foundation. Clyburn said he understood the foundation would be paying the expenses. But Gregg Hilton, who ran the now-defunct foundation, said the group never paid for the trip. Both Clyburn and Thompson filed House disclosure reports showing the group paid for the travel.

Hilton said he was led to believe by Preston Gates officials that the territory would pay the expenses and be reimbursed by the private sector.

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