The return of the congressional junket

MoJo's Andy Kroll shares his strategies for following the money in a post-Abramoff world

* A “Fiesta de Golf,” in which donors who will chip in a cool $50,000 get the chance to potentially tee off with members of the ascendant Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

* A “Stars and Stripes Shootout” in Florida, where congressmen took aim side by side with an NRA lobbyist.

* An all-expenses paid safari for influential House members at a private ranch in Kenya, on the tab of a shadowy environmental charity whose Conservation Council includes ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute.

These events have crucial elements in common—elements beyond lawmakers, lobbyists, and good times. They each represent a strategy that politicians and wealthy special interests have developed to evade ethics rules passed in 2007 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. And they restore a time-honored tradition: the congressional junket.

The arrangement works like this: a congressional caucus—an official group of lawmakers (there are many) with common characteristics or interests, such as the Congressional Black Caucus or Blue Dog Democrats or the Congressional Marcellus Shale Caucus—sets up a charitable organization. That organization, in turn, seeks donations, which do not have to be disclosed. In addition to its good works, the charitable entity then organizes events, such as conferences or retreats, in which the caucus members rub shoulders with contributors. The nonprofit can invite special interests—corporations, unions, and others—to fork over large donations to sponsor and participate in these events.

Junkets, of course, are a time-honored tool for special interests to cultivate and curry favors from legislators. But the current arrangement is in place because, after super-lobbyist Abramoff admitted in 2006 to providing luxury trips and gifts to lawmakers in exchange for official favors, Congress tried to crack down. Lawmakers passed a measure the following year to increase disclosure and prohibit members from taking trips of more than two days paid for by interest groups and their lobbyists.

As donors and lawmakers have developed strategies to circumvent the post-Abramoff restrictions, reporters on the campaign finance beat have found ways to uncover junket-related scoops.

Mike McIntire of The New York Times reported in March about the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, a group with more than 250 members in the House and Senate that ostensibly focuses on hunting and fishing issues. Its little-known foundation organizes whiskey tastings, cigar receptions, and shooting competitions in which lobbyists from the NRA and other pro-gun groups mingle with lawmakers.

Reports of similar junkets—some detailed in this 2009 overview by Eric Lipton and Eric Lichtblau for the Times—date back to shortly after ethics reform passed in late 2007. The practice was continuing to grow in 2011, Fredreka Schouten reported in USA Today, based on a review of congressional travel records.

But many of the latest revelations on the role of congressional caucuses and their nonprofit affiliates in organizing donor-funded events have come from Mother Jones. On Monday, MoJo’s Andy Kroll reported on how corporations such as Walmart, ExxonMobil, and Coke worked with the nonprofit Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute to organize galas, conferences, and fundraisers attended by the caucus’s members. And in March, MoJo’s Corbin Hiar detailed how several members of Congress—including the chairman of the House Ethics Committee—were feted with a Kenyan safari by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation. The foundation has deep corporate ties and a decided aversion to taking controversial positions on conservation issues.

So how can other reporters uncover similar junket tactics among the hundreds of caucuses that exist in Congress—from the African Great Lakes Caucus to the Congressional Army Aviation Caucus to the Congressional Hockey Caucus?

Kroll, who wrote the latest MoJo report, said he used a strategy of “reverse follow the money” to uncover his story about the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Since nonprofit organizations are not required to disclose their donors, Kroll said, the trick is to search the grants given by major special interest lobby groups rather than records belonging to the caucus or its charitable nonprofit.

“You go to where the money is coming out of instead of where the money is going in,” he said. In the case of the Hispanic Caucus’ nonprofit, Kroll said he initially found its name among the grant recipients listed on the 990 disclosure forms of the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful lobby group for the energy industry.

Another strategy Kroll recommended is to search the web pages and photo galleries of the caucus in question and its nonprofit group, as well as its major donors. Sometimes photographs or descriptions of the events in question will be featured on sites, providing strong details—such as Kroll’s mention of how an ExxonMobil lobbyist was seated next to Ruben Hinojosa, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, at a dinner event held by the Institute.

“Sometimes your lede is in their photo gallery, and it just writes itself,” he said.

Finally, Kroll advised reporters not to hesitate to ask a nonprofit group about its donors—even if it is not required to disclose them. He said that when requested, the Hispanic Caucus Institute willingly provided him a list of its top donors in the last two years, adding to the information he had accumulated by searching public records.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin. Tags: , , ,