At least two aides to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and two Democratic congressmen received travel expenses initially paid by lobbyist Jack Abramoff on his credit card or by his firm, internal records of the lobbying firm show.
Longtime House ethics rules that applied to the 1996 and 1997 trips to the Northern Mariana Islands - a U.S. commonwealth including the WWII battle site Saipan, located between Hawaii and the Philippines - strictly prohibited lawmakers and their staffs from accepting any congressional trips from lobbyists or their firms.
DeLay's office and one of the lawmakers, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said they had no knowledge that Abramoff or his firm paid the expenses. The office of Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., did not return several calls seeking comment.
Abramoff, whose lobbying is under criminal investigation, pressed his clients, the Northern Marianas government, to reimburse him for the travel because of concerns the payments might draw scrutiny from the House committee that investigates lawmakers' conduct, the documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
"I ... expect to receive a call tomorrow or Tuesday from the House ethics committee, asking for an update as to the reimbursement situation and, possibly, our outstanding bill. They are watching the trips very closely," Abramoff wrote a Marianas official in December 1996.
Abramoff and his employer at the time, the Preston Gates law and lobbying firm, represented the Pacific island government. One priority was to persuade Congress to block Clinton administration efforts to regulate alleged "sweatshop" garment factories. The rules never were enacted.
Garment factories - whose output is exported to the U.S. and other countries - are the leading industry in the Marianas.
Records state the Preston Gates firm paid hotel and airfare for Thompson and Clyburn for travel to the island in January 1997. The two lawmakers filed reports to Congress saying a private, nonprofit group, not Abramoff's firm, paid the travel.
Clyburn said in an interview he had never heard of Abramoff at the time, and provided a copy of letter showing he was invited by the nonprofit foundation. "That's all I know about it," he said.
The Preston Gates billing documents also included a hotel bill for DeLay's chief of staff in 1996, Ed Buckham, and travel upgrades for Buckham and another DeLay aide at the time, Tony Rudy. DeLay was then majority whip, the third-ranking House Republican.
The documents show Abramoff used his credit card to pay at least some congressional travel to the islands, and then sent urgent e-mails because the territorial government was slow in paying, leaving the travelers possibly in violation of House rules.
"Per instructions from Preston, we have been using Jack Abramoff's credit card for past tickets," a travel agent e-mailed the island government on Dec. 11, 1996, regarding airfare. "I have been asked to contact you regarding direct payment . . . for future tickets."
DeLay spokesman Dan Allen said his office believes the trip expenses for the two aides were paid by the government of the Northern Marianas, not Abramoff.
"The office's understanding is both traveled to CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) in 1996 at the invitation of the Northern Marianas, a territory of the United States," Allen said.
"Under House ethics rules, House employees may accept travel paid for by a governmental entity with no restrictions on the staff's ability to accept travel by such a governmental entity - whether in terms of trip duration, accompanying individuals or otherwise."
DeLay's office did not report the trip in House disclosure records. Allen said disclosure wasn't necessary since a U.S. territorial government was paying for the trip.
An Abramoff spokesman, Andrew Blum, said Monday, "The tradition of lobbyists traveling with members of Congress to visit various jurisdictions so that they could learn about issues that impact the Congress and government policy is well known. Mr. Abramoff once again is being singled for actions that are commonplace in Washington, D.C., and are totally proper."
Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics rules and campaign finance, said lawmakers and their aides probably would avoid any findings of wrongdoing by demonstrating they had no knowledge of the lobbyist payments.
"If a member generally doesn't know what's going on, it's hard to see how the member would be held to violate ethics rules," he said.
Questions also have been raised about whether DeLay's airfare to London and Scotland in 2000 was charged to an Abramoff credit card, and whether other expenses on the same trip were billed to a credit card used by Buckham, who had become a lobbyist by that time.
The Preston Gates firm was shown the documents revealing that Abramoff or the firm laid out the travel expenses on the Northern Marianas trip. The company issued a statement saying, "We're looking into it. Some things we're learning about just now."
The documents show that the following payments were made for the trip involving the DeLay aides in December 1996 and the travel by Clyburn and Thompson a month later:
The lawmakers were invited to the Marianas by a nonprofit organization, the National Security Caucus Foundation. Clyburn said he understood the foundation would be paying the expenses.
But Gregg Hilton, who ran the now-defunct foundation, said the group never paid for the trip. He said the lawmakers weren't told the foundation that invited them never put up the money. Both Clyburn and Thompson filed House disclosure reports showing the group paid for the travel, and Clyburn provided the invitation letter.
Hilton, who was on the trip himself, said the National Security Caucus Foundation was a project of the American Security Council Foundation, an organization he ran and now serves as a director. The foundations promoted a strong national defense, democracy and human rights.
Hilton said he arranged the trip with the island government and was led to believe by Preston Gates officials that the territory would pay the expenses and be reimbursed by the private sector.
He said he was not aware that Abramoff or Preston Gates paid for the trip until AP showed him the documents.
Hilton said that after his initial arrangements with island officials, he was contacted by Abramoff and other Preston Gates officials. The officials "said that because of time restrictions, the CNMI government would have to initially pay for the trip, but I was promised that private sector funding would later be located. ... This did not happen."
Several Abramoff memos to the island government seeking reimbursement had a sense of urgency.
For instance, Abramoff wrote that his firm "is hammering me on the $150,000+ in travel costs we have to pay today for the high number of members (which could be as many as 10) and staff (which could be as many as 30) which are going to be traveling in the next few months."
By Larry Margasak and Sharon Theimer