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Published: Tuesday, 6/6/2006

Senate, House members are frequent free fliers

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Are you broke, itching to globetrot, but not exactly Marine Corps material? Consider a job as - or with - an Ohio congressman.

The state's U.S. House and Senate delegations and their aides scored more than $2.2 million in free travel from 2000 to 2005 - including trips to tobacco farms, European capitals, Asian ports, and prime Utah wilderness - a Blade analysis of a congressional travel study released yesterday shows.

Leading the pack were two of the state's most powerful congressmen: House Majority Leader John Boehner (R., West Chester), who combined with his staff to log $380,000 in privately funded travel, and retiring U.S. Rep. Michael Oxley (R., Findlay), the chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, whose office logged $460,000.

Mr. Boehner and Mr. Oxley were among the 11 representatives in the nation to top $350,000 in office travel, according to figures compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media, and Northwestern University's Medill News Service. An Ohio Republican at the center of a Washington lobbying scandal, Rep. Bob Ney, topped $240,000 in office travel.

Overall, congressmen and staff took at least 23,000 trips valued at nearly $50 million in that time period, the study found, often paid for by businesses or interest groups.

The report noted that nearly all of the travel was legal: Congress only prohibits trips financed by registered lobbyists. But the report's authors called some trips "little more than pricey vacations" and charged that "in many instances, trip sponsors appeared to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers."

Democrats and Republicans alike defend the trips as appropriate and important.

"All trips completely complied with Senate rules," said Mike Dawson, an aide to U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, who combined with his staff for more than $70,000 in travel. "They're fully disclosed, and it has been an accepted practice in Congress and is used as a tool to educate staff members on a variety of different issues."

Mr. DeWine is a Republican running for re-election. His Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, logged more than $100,000 in office travel over the five-year period. Mr. Brown defended those traveling habits when The Blade reported on them earlier this year.

Mr. Brown's personal travel was funded largely by nonprofit foundations and included fact-finding missions to Asia and South American and annual trips to a South Florida health policy conference.

Mr. DeWine's only personal travel was an annual fund-raiser for a charity that benefits Haitian schools and hospitals. Four times, the trips were sponsored by Umberto Fedeli, an insurance broker, large GOP donor, and former head of the Ohio Turnpike Commission.

His staff trips included one to Brussels funded by a pharmaceutical company; one to North Carolina tobacco farms funded by a tobacco company; several sponsored by telecommunications companies, and one to Moab, Utah, to study wilderness on the dime of an environmental group.

A Brown campaign spokesman, Joanna Kuebler, said those trips prove Mr. DeWine "stands on the side of corporate donors." She called them "part of the pay-to-play culture in Washington that must change."

Congress considered banning privately funded travel as part of a lobbying reform package earlier this year. Mr. Brown opposed the effort, which failed. Mr. DeWine said he supported it.

Mr. Oxley's staff accepted trips from several large financial service interests, including the New York Stock Exchange, Goldman Sachs, and the Securities Industry Association.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) took nearly $70,000 in travel for herself and her staff, including a Brazil trip sponsored by an anti-poverty group and several trips to El Paso, Texas, and Mexico funded by the Teamsters Union.

The Democratic nominee for Ohio governor, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland (D., Lisbon), also took a Teamsters-funded Mexico trip. His office totaled $13,500 in travel.

This report includes information from the Associated Press.

Contact Jim Tankersley at:

jtankersley@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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