ABC World News stirred up a mini ethics controversy with its report last week exposing California Representative Dan Lungren’s use of creative recordkeeping to allow lobbyists to pay for him and his wife to travel to a luxury resort on Hawaii’s Big Island. (Check out the lush Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel here.)
New ethics rules banning Congressional receipt of gifts of travel from lobbyists led most members to forgo the Hawaiian conference that had been an annual trip for many. Lungren (along with Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye) found a way around the letter, though not the spirit, of the law.
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.
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?"
The almost-hidden camera quality of the story (watch it here), and Lungren’s apparent disdain for the spirit of Congressional ethics rules, draw into stark relief just why the ban on lobbyist-funded travel was enacted in the first place. Lungren's luxury vacation was paid for by special interests. When those same interests come to Lungren for a favor next month, what are the chances he bites the hand that paid for the pool?
And what gives our elected representatives this misguided sense of entitlement? Elevation to the House (or any other political body) is a public trust, not a key to the executive washroom.