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Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Sunday Scandal

Harpers reports:

Back in January of 2007, the House Ethics Committee (“Press 1 if you are a member of Congress covering up a criminal offense. Press 2 if…”) released a statement saying that it had reviewed a foreign trip by Congressman Curt Weldon and determined that he had violated the gift rule ban. Weldon, said the statement–which was signed by Republican Doc Hastings, then the Committee chairman, and Howard Berman, then the ranking Democrat–had traveled in January 2003 with “several” unnamed family members. “Donors,” who were also not identified, picked up the tab for much of the trip, said the committee. The statement also failed to disclose where precisely Weldon & Co. had traveled, but did say that Weldon had been told to reimburse the trip’s financial sponsors for some $23,000 in expenses.

So where did Curt Weldon go? I’ve learned that he traveled to Eastern Europe (stops included Moscow and Vienna) with 10 family members and acquaintances, including one son’s girlfriend and a daughter’s boyfriend. The trip was paid for by three private foreign groups, including a Russian aerospace manufacturer and members of a controversial Serbian family that were barred from entering the United States due to their alleged ties to accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. Very soon after the trip the Russian firm and the Serbian family retained Karen Weldon, the congressman’s young, politically inexperienced daughter, to be their Washington lobbyist–which led to charges about whether her father was steering business to her that are currently the subject of a federal investigation.

This was all known to the Ethics Committee when it released its statement in January of 2007. As is inevitably the case, the committee opted to cover up for one of its own as opposed to holding members of congress accountable.

According to the Committee’s statement and other evidence I have obtained, prior to traveling Weldon had disclosed his trip and sought a waiver from the gift-rule provisions that at the time permitted a member of Congress to accept “travel and other benefits resulting from outside activities that are unrelated to official duties.” Weldon argued that his trip was unrelated to official duties, because the invitation to travel to Eastern Europe (to give a speech) was made on the basis of his membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences–not because he was a member of Congress. Even the typically lame Ethics Committee rejected that argument, recognizing (for obvious reasons we’ll soon see) that the trip was connected to Weldon’s position as a member of Congress. So Weldon, according to the January 2007 statement, “then sought a gift rule waiver from the Committee, but withdrew his request prior to receiving a formal written response from the Committee.”

In other words, Weldon apparently didn’t get the answer he wanted so he simply ignored the committee’s advice and ethics rules and went anyway, with the tab being picked up by outside sponsors.

In January of 2003, the Weldon clan headed to Eastern Europe. In addition to the congressman, the travelers included his wife, his three daughters, two sons, one son-in-law, a niece and two other people, whose identities were apparently known to the committee but were not revealed. I’ve learned that those two people were the girlfriend of son Andrew Weldon and the boyfriend of daughter Karen Weldon, who at the time was embarking on a lucrative career as a lobbyist (though a short-lived career, interrupted in October of 2006 by a federal raid on her offices).

So the Weldon clan departed to Moscow, and the Moscow International Petroleum Club, “a non-profit international organization, with membership of over 25 leading Russian, European, and American oil and gas production and service companies committed to doing business in Russia,” picked up about $12,000 in planes fares and hotel lodging.

Other stops in Russia included the Saratov Aviation Plant, a company building a flying saucer, whose technology Congressman Weldon was aggressively pushing in Washington. Saratov paid for roughly $4,000 of airfare, which included flights from Moscow to the plant and then from the plant to Belgrade. Soon after this visit, Karen Weldon closed a deal with Saratov to lobby for the firm in Washington.

In Belgrade, the Weldon family stayed at a private residence owned by the controversial Karic family. As I wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2004:

Because of evidence that the Karics had supported Milosevic, the Treasury Department placed them on a list of Serbians banned from doing business in the United States. They all had been removed from the list by last year, as the United States normalized relations with Serbia, but they still cannot get visas.

In a written statement, a spokesman for the Karics said, “Regarding the alleged links of the Karic Group or family to the Milosevic regime, we can only reiterate that these allegations are the product of groups or individuals from our country who have been themselves profiting from ties with the former regime.” Rep. Weldon came to adopt the view that the Karics, whose businesses thrived under Milosevic, were being unfairly portrayed as sympathizers of the former leader.

From Belgrade, the Weldon clan traveled to Vienna. The roughly $7,000 in airfare was picked up by the Karic Group. In March 2003, two months after this trip, the Karic Foundation hired Karen Weldon’s firm on a renewable one-year contract paying $240,000 to help it in “establishing and developing a U.S. presence.”

The Ethics Committee’s limp, pathetic response to this egregiousness came in January 2007–two months after Weldon had lost his House seat. The Committee essentially protected one of their own up until the point that it was irrelevant. Furthermore, Weldon had during the campaign claimed–falsely, as the statement shows–that he had been fully investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing by the committee. By not releasing the statement until months after he had lost his House seat, the committee allowed then-Congressman Weldon to lie.

Finally, the Committee had determined that it would not take any action over charges that Weldon had steered business to daughter Karen’s firm. But, as is customary, the committee’s investigation was largely limited to reviewing information submitted by Weldon’s own office. Imagine how many convictions we’d get if the police limited their investigations to data provided by suspects, yet that’s the way our Congress works.

(This also makes it easy to understand this story from today’s Washington Post, “House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) said yesterday that he would welcome an ethics committee investigation into his fundraising efforts for an academic center that bears his name.” Yes, I can imagine the propsect of a committee investigation doesn’t keep Rangel up at night.)

Weldon’s attorney, William Winning, did not reply to a request for comment about the trip, nor to a question about whether Weldon ever in fact paid the money back. If he does reply, I will update this story immediately.

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