Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Must See TV: C-SPAN on Congressional Travel Investigation

Wendell Rawls, Executive Director of The Center for Public Integrity was a guest on C-SPAN's Washington Journal this morning to discuss his organization's outstanding investigation (site's link to ther video press conference) into congressional travel.

Mr. Rawls segment starts at 2:04:23 into the archived video (RealPlayer format). This is fact-based, investigative journalism at its best and worthy of a Pultizer. From the site's 'How We Did It: The anatomy of an investigation' page:

Nine months of work, dozens of researchers, more than 26,000 documents and 7 million characters of data entry.

That's what it took to answer the question: Who is taking Congress for a ride?

Along the way, researchers from the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media (producer of Marketplace) and Northwestern University's Medill News Service encountered all manners of misfiled, misreported and mystifying travel disclosures.

When a citizen, political action committee or lobbyist makes a contribution to an election fund, that information is reported to an independent federal agency, posted on the Internet and made available to reporters, researchers and the public.

But when the same people or groups pay for a "fact-finding mission," that information is put on paper forms, then filed in three-ring binders or input into a computer system, and made available only in the office buildings where the records are stored.

The House of Representatives' forms are kept in a sub-basement of the Cannon House Office Building, where the public copies were often hard to read, torn and misfiled. Researchers were told it was against House rules to digitally scan the documents — they had to make photocopies instead.

The Senate travel disclosure documents are stored in a computer system in the Hart Senate Office Building, and can be searched by the name of the traveler or the senator approving the travel. But those records are not available online. So researchers went to the building and printed them out.

Thus began an odyssey through the minutiae of congressional ethics rules, database software and company financial information. (See Methodology)

Along the way, we discovered trips for which no sponsor was listed; trips paid for by the federal government (not included in the totals of this report); trips for which no cost was listed — or with a reported $0 value, despite the fact that such trips do not require disclosure.

The overall numbers derived from the Center's study almost certainly are conservative. Always present was the concern that in having to photocopy and scan documents stored under less-than-ideal conditions, something had slipped through our fingers. Even without the possibility of our missing a document, the poor quality of the filings makes it hard to compare one member to another, one staffer to another, or one sponsor to another.

As a result, figures reported in this series were calculated with an eye to finding numbers that show floor totals rather than ceilings of what was spent taking Congress for a ride.

Here's an excerpt from the front-page Washington Post's coverage of the study:
...The center's study illustrates how widespread the practice has become, for both Democrats and Republicans. Of the 25 individual lawmakers who accepted more than $120,000 worth of travel during the period, 17 were Democrats. Of the two dozen congressional offices on which private trip sponsors spent the most money, 15 were Republican, the study said...

Ohio's Boehner and Oxley are specifically referred to in the Post's coverage as indiviudals (and/or their staff) that took more than more than $350,000 in privately funded travel between January 2000 and June 2005:
Boehner and members of his office were among the top beneficiaries of privately funded travel, according to the study, taking more than 200 trips during the 5 1/2 -year period reviewed. Others included the offices of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).


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