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Conflicts of Interest Abound in Military Travel Funding

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/06/the_pentagon_us_department_of_defense_building.jpgThe Pentagon (Department of Defense photo)

In 2007, after passing legislation to rein in the schmoozy junkets that allowed lobbyists to buy face time with lawmakers, congressional leaders from all political walks applauded their effort as a long stride toward limiting the influence of moneyed interests over Washington policymakers.

“We have promised the highest ethical standard,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at the time, “and we will deliver it, in an open and honest government.”

Nationalsecurity1.jpg
Nationalsecurity1.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

She didn’t mention that the restrictions targeted members of Congress and their staffs almost exclusively.

Nearly two years later, a new study reveals that travel by executive branch officials might merit similar scrutiny. From 1998 through 2007, Pentagon officials have been treated to at least 22,000 worldwide trips, worth at least $26 million, funded by outside groups like corporations and foreign governments, many of which have contracts or other interests before the agency, according to the study released Wednesday by the Center for Public Integrity and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Such junkets are legal as long as internal screeners grant prior approval, but government watchdog groups say there’s plenty of room for conflicts of interest.

Indeed, the analysts found cases where pharmaceutical giants treated Pentagon doctors and pharmacists to overseas trips totaling thousands of dollars each, including a $7,800 visit to Paris. (Meanwhile, pharmaceutical spending by the Department of Defense jumped nearly 300 percent, to $6 billion a year, between 2000 and 2006.) In another case, a Saudi prince picked up the $24,000 tab for a visit from Richard Millies, deputy director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and his wife. Milles just happened to run the program that sells weapon systems to foreign governments, the report found. (Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia accounted for roughly $4.4 billion in such purchases between 2003 and 2006 alone, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

Government watchdog groups are quick to point out that the spending isn’t meant to be charity. “There’s a business reason for providing these trips to officials,” said Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based non-profit research group.

The Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Confronted with the Jack Abramoff scandal — as well as a similar CPI-Medill study detailing congressional travel trends — lawmakers took steps in 2007 to restrict lobbyist- and corporate- funded junkets. Those efforts culminated in the passage of a bill prohibiting trips of longer than one day for any organization employing a lobbyist and banning lobbyists from going along. The new law also prevents moneyed interests from shuttling lawmakers around on corporate jets and requires congressional ethics panels to OK trips 30 days in advance. Additionally, the law requires that all trips be disclosed online.

By contrast, federal rules allow outsiders to fund trips and other expenses for executive branch employees if internal screeners give prior approval. The rules indicate that the travel must be related to the employee’s normal task and not represent a conflict of interest. The records are held, in paper form, by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said the difference between the limits on congressional travel and those affecting executive branch officials represents “a gaping chasm.” The federal rules might sound good on the surface, he argued, but the sheer number of internal ethics officers — some hired by political appointees — make oversight of the process almost impossible. In one case, a high-level Interior Department official under the Bush administration employed his girlfriend as his ethics officer, he added.

In another high-profile case, Nancy Nord, the acting chairman of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, was found to have taken expensive trips to China, Spain and San Francisco on the tab of some of the same retail manufacturers she’s now charged with regulating. Nord’s term expires in October 2012.

“This is the system of ethics we’ve got in the executive branch,” Holman said.

Holman, along with sources on Capitol Hill, said that any changes to the travel procedures for executive branch officials will likely originate with the Obama administration. The White House on Wednesday did not return a call for comment.

How soon that change occurs could have a significant effect on federal spending. Stern said the potential conflicts of interest between White House officials and special interests are potentially more glaring than those between Congress and lobbyists. “In a sense they’re even more important, because they’re the ones who make the decisions about where the money goes,” Stern said of the executive branch officials. “It’s clearly as important — and maybe more important — because no one’s watching.”

Many watchdogs are hoping that Wednesday’s report could be precisely the spark that sets the process of reform in motion. “It usually takes embarrassment,” Stern said, “before these things are done.”

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