WASHINGTON — The congressional ethics investigation of Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., is broader than previously disclosed and goes well beyond his use of $12 in per diem expense money to buy six decorative goblets in Afghanistan last year.
Congressional staff members with detailed knowledge of the probe said ethics investigators are examining Wilson's unusually high number of foreign trips — at least 30 in the past eight years — and his use of per diem expense money while traveling abroad.
Wilson, a relatively unknown lawmaker until he shouted "You lie!" as President Barack Obama addressed Congress last year, has a reputation among his peers as a frequent foreign traveler, these staff members said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the investigation.
Wilson confirmed earlier in the week that examiners with the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent nonpartisan agency established in 2008 following a wave of lawmaker scandals, had recently interviewed him about his use of per diem expense money.
Wilson said then that their focus was on his use of $12 to buy six small goblets in Afghanistan in August 2009.
However, Wilson acknowledged in an interview Thursday that the interrogation was more wide-ranging and covered other expenditures made on separate foreign trips, though he said he doesn't recall the details.
"I do not remember which trips they spoke about," Wilson told McClatchy. "I don't remember specifically."
Since he joined Congress after a December 2001 special election, Wilson's overseas travel has cost taxpayers about $100,000 all told in itemized expenses, including roughly $38,000 in per diem money intended to cover only meals and lodging.
That total puts Wilson at No. 29 among the 435 members of the House — and at No. 39 among 730 members who've served since 1994, according to data published in the Congressional Record, the official proceedings of the House and Senate and analyzed by Congressional Quarterly.
Because most of Wilson's trips have been to visit U.S. troops around the world, they've entailed significant additional costs beyond the $100,000 — including large sums of non-itemized, taxpayer-covered funds to pay for U.S. Air Force planes used to transport him and other lawmakers.
Wilson strongly defended his trips abroad as forming an essential part of his duties as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and as the senior Republican on its military preparedness subcommittee.
"I stand by the (dollar) numbers," Wilson said. "I want to visit with the troops. That's a very important function of my job as a member of the military preparedness subcommittee. In my duties, I ought to know the individual concerns of troops and their families. That requires me to be with the troops on the ground."
Democrat Rob Miller, Wilson's general election opponent this year, is a former Marine Corps captain who served in Iraq. He ridiculed Wilson's participation in congressional tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.
"When I was in Iraq, I don't know how many times we had to take Marines and soldiers off missions so they could provide security for these political stunts," Miller told McClatchy. "That's simply unacceptable. These politicians need to get out of the way and let the military get the job done."
The Office of Congressional Ethics probe of Wilson's foreign travel expenses is examining four other lawmakers: Reps. Alcee Hastings of Florida, Solomon Ortiz of Texas and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, all Democrats; and Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama.
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