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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Michigan congressman's wheels raising eyebrows

DETROIT - U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D., Detroit) represents the poorest congressional district in Michigan, and the geographically smallest. But you'd never know it from her wheels. To get around her district, a part of Detroit and a few small suburbs, Ms. Kilpatrick leases a Cadillac DeVille for $816 a month and charges it to the federal government.

Why does she do that? Because she can get away with it.

According to a study in the Kansas City Star, a third of all members of the U.S. House of Representatives lease vehicles at government expense to tool around their districts.

Ms. Kilpatrick spends the most of anyone in Michigan, but, as a press spokesman said, she at least "drives an American product that is made and manufactured in her district."

Others in other states lease expensive foreign cars at taxpayer expense. Take U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat whose district is nearly as poor as Ms. Kilpatrick's.

Mr. Hastings drives an Infiniti M45. He is best known as the only congressman who was a federal judge until he was impeached and removed from office by the U.S. Senate following charges in a bribery case. Then there is Rep. Maurice Hinchley (D., N.Y.). He once was a toll booth collector. Now, he leases not one but two cars, a BMW and a Nissan, all at government expense. (Though the examples in this story are Democrats, in fact slightly more of the congressmen who lease cars are Republicans.)

Craig Holman, an expert on ethics in government, thinks this is all pretty awful. "Congressmen get enough perks. They ought to pay for their own wheels," said Mr. Holman, who keeps tabs on Congress for the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Congress Watch.

He acknowledged that a case could be made for leasing a modest vehicle for members with huge districts. For example, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) represents a vast portion of sparsely populated northern Michigan, including all of the Upper Peninsula.

Yet Mr. Stupak doesn't stick the taxpayers for any car payments at all. Neither do any U.S. senators - the Senate does not allow its members to lease cars at the voters' expense.

What troubles Mr. Holman more than the car leases, however, is a growing tendency for congressmen to take trips paid for by private interest groups.

This is still going on, the Washington-based Mr. Holman said with amazement, despite some ongoing big scandals.

Earlier this year, Washington was shaken by revelations that lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have made illegal payments to members of Congress. Former U.S. Rep. Randy Duke Cunningham (R., Calif.) is now federal prisoner Cunningham, after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

No one has charged any Michigan congressman with breaking the law. But once again, Ms. Kilpatrick may be leading the state delegation in eyebrow-raising behavior.

Last year, she took a six-day trip to Egypt with two aides. Price tag: $25,059. The tab was picked up by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, which is based in Dearborn, one of the suburbs not in her district. Is that ethical? Currently, according to congressional rules, yes.

Just why Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a low-ranking member of the appropriations committee, needed to go to Egypt wasn't clear. What is clear is that she loves to travel.

Last month, a deal to transfer control of the Detroit Zoo was nearly derailed when her son, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, dumped a deal on Detroit City Council and then immediately went off with Mommy on a junket to Africa.

Democrats are far from the only offenders. In January, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R., Harrison Township) and her husband took an all-expenses paid trip to Key Biscayne, Fla. The tab was picked up by the Ripon Society, a foundation that promotes moderate Republican ideas.

But these days, the society is known in Washington as a "travel agency for lobbyists." Make that, a pass-through agency.

Lobbyists - I don't know which ones - paid for the junket. And they did so, more than likely, because they want favorable votes from her on upcoming legislation.

Someone needs to hold Congress accountable. Mr. Holman has a PhD in government, and has been studying ethics for many years. "I don't think there has been another time in history when (ethical standards) have been as bad as they are now," he said. Nor, he added, when public confidence in the morality of the nation's elected representatives has been as low.

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