Travel gaffe brings spotlight back to congressional travel

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 20, 2012 

— New revelations about a 2011 congressional trip to Israel have prompted one Midwestern politician's apology and reminded a San Joaquin Valley lawmaker that travel can be costly.

Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder, a conservative freshman from eastern Kansas, offered a written apology for “any embarrassment” he caused following his acknowledgement that he had jumped “without a swimsuit” into the fresh-water Sea of Galilee last year. Several of his House colleagues on the same trip also swam, albeit properly clothed, including California Rep. Jeff Denham, R-CA."

"My wife and I were lucky to have the chance to swim in the Sea of Galilee in a completely appropriate manner, something we had planned ahead of time," Denham said in a statement late Monday.

Swimming, even overseas, usually isn’t enough to incite a political tempest. Yoder’s brief disrobing and a subsequent FBI inquiry first reported in the Politico newspaper, however, refocused a spotlight on the sensitive topic of congressional travel.

Denham and his wife Sonia, like Kevin and Brooke Yoder, were part of a large delegation traveling in August 2011 courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation. The group reported paying $20,227.46 for the Denhams to participate in the eight-day trip, which included a number of meetings with Israeli officials as well as visits to holy sites.

"I am honored to have had the chance to participate in this trip and look forward to continuing to work with AIEF on their important issues," Denham said.

"My wife and I were lucky to have the chance to swim in the Sea of Galilee in a completely appropriate manner, something we had planned ahead of time," Denham said in a statement late Monday.

As first reported by Politico, which covers politics and Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., subsequently rebuked participants following the Aug. 18, 2011 incident in which upwards of 20 lawmakers, during evening festivities, reportedly splashed about in the water

“Twelve months ago, (Cantor) dealt with this immediately and effectively to ensure such activities would not take place in the future," Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, Doug Heye, said in a statement. He said that a congressional aide also answered some FBI questions about the episode.

Heye once worked for former Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, whose own political career was undermined in 2006 in part by questions about family travel within the United States. Heye’s assurances Monday did not quiet Democrats, who seized on the Israel trip as a political gift.

“This looks more like a scene out of Animal House than a delegation of members of Congress representing America in Israel,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in a statement Monday. “What other inappropriate, embarrassing behavior have Republican members of Congress been engaged in that Republican leaders are keeping under wraps?”

Democrat Jose Hernandez, Denham’s congressional opponent, added Monday that the congressman “owes his constituents an apology” for what happened in Israel.

Affiliated with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Israel Education Foundation pays for more congressional travel than almost any other private organization, according to data compiled by Legistorm, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for public documents and other data about Congress. In the last four years, records show, Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, among many others, have all participated in similar privately funded Israel trips.

Many other private groups, likewise, sponsor congressional travel, as do congressional committees and leaders of the House and Senate.

Shortly before he announced his resignation last week, for instance, then-Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, returned from a congressional trip to Europe, in the company of several other lame-duck members of Congress. Cardoza’s last-hurrah trip was first reported by a Washington Post columnist, who diligently tracks congressional travel with a sardonic tone.

Lawmakers are allowed to accept paid travel by private groups under certain conditions, according to House ethics rules. Both privately funded and congressional-sponsored travel must be reported, though there is a lag time between the event and the disclosure.

Late last year, Denham joined an official trip to Afghanistan, Turkey and Germany. At about the same time, Nunes was jetting to Europe, according to travel records. But because the trip was for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the exact locations were not publicly revealed. In November, official travel records stated simply that Nunes was in “Asia.”

Lawmakers also travel much closer to home. The conservative Club for Growth, for instance, has paid for McClintock to travel several times to Palm Beach during winter months in recent years. The group invited McClintock, whose new congressional district spans much of the Sierra Nevada mountains between Sacramento and Fresno, to discuss issues like opposition to earmarks and government waste.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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