WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. House members from Pennsylvania and their staff accepted 41 privately paid trips so far this year, ranging from $20,000 in business-class airline tickets to Japan for Rep. Charlie Dent and his wife to $300-a-night hotel rooms for the staff of other lawmakers at a luxurious Las Vegas casino resort.
The Associated Press reviewed gift and travel records on the House clerk's website in the wake of a controversy about how those trips would be disclosed.
The House Ethics Committee was criticized this month for quietly eliminating a Watergate-era requirement that lawmakers reveal trips on personal financial forms, reasoning that fuller data are already kept on file with the House clerk. After watchdog groups complained, that ethics requirement was reinstated.
Privately funded travel is not prohibited. But House members must get ethics committee approval before the trip and file detailed information — including costs — within 15 days of returning.
The increase in privately funded travel by members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation, from 17 in 2008 to 47 in 2013, tracks a steady increase in the U.S. House as a whole, from 1,012 in 2008 to 1,685 last year.
Dent's office ranked first in the delegation in the number of privately funded trips taken in 2013 and 2014. In the first part of this year, he or his staff took eight trips valued at $44,688.
The 2014 trips ranged from $57.50 for a staff member's bus trip to Elkton, Maryland, and Newark, Delaware, at the invitation of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association to $24,621 for a weeklong trip to Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan for Dent and his wife. The cost included business-class airfare totaling $20,202 and interpreters at $1,756, paid for by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. The disclosure forms indicate that Dent met with the Japanese prime minister and other officials to discuss trade policy.
Dent, a Republican, traveled last month to Berlin and Frankfurt, Germany, also paid for by the Former Members of Congress group, at a cost of $10,157. He said he met German political and business leaders to discuss trade, Ukraine, the National Security Agency and other matters. Dent sits on an appropriations subcommittee for state and foreign operations.
"None of the trips cost a taxpayer a single dollar," said Dent, who also sits on the House Ethics Committee. "All were promptly and properly disclosed."
The current travel rules were put in place in 2007 following the conviction of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who showered lawmakers and their staffs with favors. After Democrats took control of the House, they imposed requirements that banned registered lobbyists from being involved in travel and generally restricted free trips to short stays.
"The era of potential big-money influence is back," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, who advises Congress and states on campaign finance laws. "Special interests that used to fly members of Congress and their spouses on luxurious travel excursions to curry favor, but were temporarily stopped by the 2007 ethics rules, are once again finding the ethics committees have given the green light."
Among other members of the delegation, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., took four trips valued at $16,123, including a visit last month with his wife to Poland costing $12,506.
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., and Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., sent staff members to the Consumer Electronics Association trade show in Las Vegas this past January. They stayed near the trade show at the Wynn casino resort, where a room cost more than $300 per night.
In 2013, Dent or his staff took seven trips worth $47,041; Rep. Patrick Meehan, who also sits on the House ethics committee, logged five trips by his staff or himself at a cost of $23,484; Rep. Mike Kelly's office, three trips worth $21,123; and Marino, three trips worth $15,696.
John Elizandro, a spokesman for Meehan, said the congressman's travel was conducted in full compliance with ethics rules and was also reported on his personal financial forms.
Some watchdog groups expressed concern about groups with legislative agendas that pay for travel.
In 2013, Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., accepted a trip to the Club for Growth's winter conference on fiscal conservatism, which included $450-per-night rooms at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Florida. The disclosure forms note that Club for Growth had negotiated the room rate before it invited lawmakers to attend.
A spokesman for Rothfus, Edward Yap, said all the congressman's trips were approved by the ethics committee. He added that Rothfus is committed to serving Pennsylvanians, including by holding 56 open forums with constituents and responding to their inquiries on a range of issues "more than 170,000 times."
In the Senate, where ethics rules are generally the same, Sen. Pat Toomey's office had taken 14 trips in 2013 and 2014 worth roughly $12,000 while Bob Casey's office had taken two. Two of the trips were taken by Toomey himself — one to the Club for Growth conference in Palm Beach in 2013 at a cost of $1,819, and the other a trip that he and wife took to Sea Island, Georgia, this year paid for by the American Enterprise Institute, valued at $1,327. Both of Casey's trips were taken by his staff to Philadelphia and Warrenton, Virginia, at a cost of $1,100.
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