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Published: Monday, 4/3/2006

Rep. Brown often flies at expense of private groups, review finds

U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown: Democrat has taken six January trips to Florida with a total value of more than $15,000 since 1999. U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown: Democrat has taken six January trips to Florida with a total value of more than $15,000 since 1999.

Cleveland and Washington grow cold in January, and for years, U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown has found a sunny and cost-free escape: a health care policy conference in South Florida.

The Democrat from Avon, Ohio, a candidate for U.S. Senate this year, has taken six January trips to Florida with a total value of more than $15,000 since 1999. All were thanks to grants from Harvard University and a health-care-focused nonprofit group called the Commonwealth Fund, which sponsors the annual bi-partisan conference.

Congressional records show Mr. Brown, his family, and his staff accepted 57 privately funded trips, valued at nearly $180,000, in more than a decade in the House - including flights to Finland, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Israel, Moscow, and Taiwan.

Nonprofit groups sponsored most of them. Corporations and business groups funded others, including a staffer's trip to a San Francisco seminar on electrical regulation, paid for by utility giant PG & E, and Mr. Brown's travel to India, paid for by the Confederation of Indian Industry.

The watchdog group PoliticalMoneyLine ranks Mr. Brown 69th of 640 current or former congressmen in the number of privately funded trips accepted. Mr. Brown's likely November opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, ranked 445th.

The group's online database does not include all of Mr. Brown's reported trips or any of his staff members' trips.

Mr. Brown said last week that his travel is never extravagant and is always issue-focused, including research on tuberculosis in prisons in Siberia and workers locked out of a Nicaraguan textile mill.

"They weren't exactly the Paris air show," he said, adding later: "I've gotten to go to a lot of nice places. I don't argue that at all. It's been serious policy stuff."

Mr. DeWine has so far declined to talk about Mr. Brown's record.

But campaign advisers to a former Democratic rival for the Senate nomination, Paul Hackett, touted a partial list of Mr. Brown's travel in an opposition research memo obtained by The Blade earlier this year, shortly after Mr. Hackett quit the race.

The memo dubbed Mr. Brown a "globe-trotter at special interest expense" and advocated using the travel to portray him as "part of the cesspool of Washington."

Opponents have clubbed Mr. Brown with his passport before: In 1990, Mr. Brown lost a re-election bid for Ohio secretary of state after a campaign that featured a commercial lampooning his proposal to take a sabbatical in Japan.

Congress considered banning privately funded travel earlier this year, after a wave of lobbying scandals that included allegations that U.S. Rep. Bob Ney (R., Heath, Ohio) traded congressional favors, in part, for a golfing trip to Scotland.

The Senate excluded that ban from a lobbying reform bill it passed last week, which most notably outlaws lobbyist-bought meals for congressmen. The House is set to consider its own reform bill this week. Mr. Brown said he would oppose inclusion of a travel ban.

"I don't want walls to go up around our country," he said. "It's important for congressmen to travel, and it all should be exposed."

Mr. DeWine said in a recent interview that he would support a ban on privately sponsored travel.

Records show Mr. DeWine has accepted eight private trips, mostly to attend fund-raisers for a charity that funds medical care in Haiti.

Mr. DeWine travels more frequently on government expense, often to undisclosed locations with his colleagues on the Senate intelligence committee. Records show the trips have cost taxpayers a total of about $38,000 for Mr. DeWine.

Mr. Brown pledged in 1992 never to travel at taxpayer expense, a promise he said he has broken only once, to attend Mother Teresa's funeral in Calcutta.

His first privately funded trip came in 1996, when the Confederation of Indian Industries paid more than $12,500 to bring Mr. Brown and a staff member to New Delhi and other cities for a nine-day tour.

Mr. Brown, a leading House critic of free-trade agreements, listed the trip's purpose in congressional filings as "to create an export relationship between industries in India and the U.S." Two months later, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office brought a Brown staff member to study the island's "political and economic situation."

A local business group flew Mr. Brown and a staffer to Taiwan in 1998 for "fact-finding." Mr. Brown returned in 2002, thanks to a Taiwanese medical group, for a symposium on Taiwan's bid for inclusion in the World Health Organization. Mr. Brown has sponsored several House bills urging the President to push for that inclusion.

The nonprofit Aspen Institute, which frequently sponsors congressional travel, sent Mr. Brown on nine foreign-policy related trips around the world, including conferences in Ireland, Prague, Mexico, and Berlin. Several of those included accommodations for one of Mr. Brown's family members.

Other groups that sent Mr. Brown on multiple trips include the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies and the Faith and Politics Institute, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan, interfaith organization … to help public officials stay in touch with their faith and deeper values as they shape pubic policy."

PG & E and Airbus each funded a trip for one of Mr. Brown's staff; a campaign spokesman said both of them related to pending policy issues. The electrical conference, for example, came after President Clinton proposed national electrical deregulation when Mr. Brown sat on the House energy and commerce committee.

Mr. Brown said his trips never include shopping or, unlike Mr. Ney, golf. He said Congress should address the recent lobbying scandals by shedding light on "earmarking," the often-anonymous inclusion of representatives' pet projects in spending bills - and that some of the solution is out of politicians' reach.

"Most of these lobby reforms won't stop the Republicans from letting the drug companies write the prescription drug bill or the oil companies write the energy bill," he said. "Press coverage is going to do that, and angry voters."

Contact Jim Tankersley at: jtankersley@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.

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