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S. Korean Group Sponsored DeLay Trip
The Washington Post
By Mike Allen and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A01

A delegation of Republican House members including Majority Leader Tom DeLay accepted an expense-paid trip to South Korea in 2001 from a registered foreign agent despite House rules that bar the acceptance of travel expenses from foreign agents, according to government documents and travel reports filed by the House members.

Justice Department documents show that the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a business-financed entity created with help from a lobbying firm headed by DeLay's former chief of staff, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act on Aug. 22, 2001. DeLay; his wife, Christine; and two other Republican lawmakers departed on a trip financed by the group on Aug. 25 of that year.

The exchange group in late 2003 hosted three Democratic House members and another Republican on a similar trip. It spent at least $106,921 to finance the three-day trip in 2001 from Washington to Seoul by the Republicans, which DeLay (Tex.) and accompanying staff assistants described at the time as having an "educational" purpose.

DeLay's aides said yesterday that the congressman did not learn of the group's registration until this week. "There's no way we could have known, and they didn't inform us of the fact that their status changed," said DeLay's communications director, Dan Allen.

The Rules of the U.S. House of Representatives on Gifts and Travel state that "a Member, officer or employee may not accept travel expenses from 'a registered lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal.' "

Jan W. Baran, a former general counsel for the Republican National Committee, said that although he was uncertain whether this trip violated the rules, "it's a problem" likely to trigger an investigation by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, known as the ethics committee. DeLay was admonished three times last year by the ethics committee.

An aide to DeLay who asked not to be named said DeLay staff members had general discussions about the trip with the ethics committee before leaving and received verbal approval.

A veteran House official familiar with the case, who declined to be named because of DeLay's involvement, said verbal approval is not granted by the committee on such matters.

Committee staff workers provide advice to lawmakers and their aides, but it does not go beyond what could be read in a manual, the official said. "The only way you can get, quote, approval from the ethics committee that is good for anything other than your own comfort level is to write a letter asking for approval, and to get a letter back," the official said. "If you do that, you're home free. If you don't, you're always running the risk you'll end up in a bind."

No letter was sent by DeLay to the committee, DeLay's aides said.

DeLay was accompanied to Seoul by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ander Crenshaw, both Florida Republicans. A spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen, Alex Cruz, said she did not know the group had registered as a foreign agent.

"My boss was never told of this," Cruz said. A spokesman for Crenshaw, Kenneth Lundberg, said, "When the trip was brought [to us], we did an internal vetting of it, and that revealed no problems, no issues."

Lundberg said Crenshaw does not typically seek ethics committee approval for travel with other legislators and did not in this case.

The purpose of the trip is spelled out in documents filed with the Justice Department by the Alexander Strategy Group, a firm created by former DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham that boasts dozens of large corporations and trade associations among its clients. Buckham is close to DeLay, and associates of both men say that DeLay agrees to meetings with corporate officials on Buckham's recommendation.

 According to the documents, the objective of the trip was to help define the corporate executive who bankrolls the exchange group, Chairman Seung Youn Kim of the Hanwha Group, as "the leading Korean business statesman in U.S.-Korea relations." The Hanwha Group is one of South Korea's top 10 holding companies.

The documents show that arranging the lawmakers' trip is just one of numerous steps the lobbyists promised to take for Kim. Others included arranging a meeting with President Bush and lawmakers in Washington.

An "illustrative schedule" dated February 2001 for the August 2001 trip lists proposed meetings with the U.S. ambassador, Korean legislators and business executives, but includes "free time for shopping, touring, golf" on each of the three days in Seoul.

It could not be determined yesterday whether the lawmakers actually followed that schedule. DeLay said on the report, filed Sept. 26, 2001, that his expenses for the trip were $13,000 for transportation, $330 for lodging, $150 for meals and $20 for "other." An identical accounting of expenses was provided for his wife. Under "sponsor," DeLay wrote, "the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council."

Registration under the act constitutes a declaration that the group acts as an agent of a foreign government or political party. A statement dated Tuesday issued by the Korean-U.S. Exchange Council, and signed by Edward Stewart, who works for Buckham's firm, said that "members were advised that a representative of the House Committee of [sic] Official Standards and Conduct approved the trip verbally." The group said that it registered as a foreign agent "after the Committee representative approved the trip."

"Members were not told that the organization had registered," the statement said, adding that the group was "unaware that this could change the status of the trip."

Several other lawmakers and aides, including an adviser on Asian affairs to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also accepted trips from the group as recently as last year, according to congressional disclosure forms. Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said that "there was no reason to think this group was anything other than a charity."

House Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) traveled to Seoul at the group's expense from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, 2003, according to a database compiled by researchers at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Attempts to reach aides for all four were unsuccessful last night.

The cost of DeLay's trip was the fourth largest for any single trip by lawmakers from Jan. 1, 2000, to September 2004, according to the Medill tally.

Baran, who now specializes in government ethics law, said the ethics committee might distinguish between the actions of a lawmaker who traveled without knowing about the foreign agent registration and one who did know. "If a member acting in good faith and without knowledge [travels], that does not in and of itself create a violation, but it does create a problem," he said.

Research editor Lucy Shackelford and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

AAnother two House rules broken by Delay. How many more charges can be filed against this man before someone does something? The media remains almost completely silent. Democrats should hit Delay around the clock until he's forced to repay the money.