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Owens will reimburse cost of trip to Taiwanese university after lobbying questions arise


CANTON - Rep. William L. Owens said he will personally reimburse a university in Taiwan that paid his way to the island nation in December after a report questioned the role of lobbyists in organizing the trip.

Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, maintained he broke no congressional ethics rules when he took the four-day trip, even though one of the men who helped author the ethics law, which can result in censure or fines from the House of Representatives, disagreed.

“I think this goes to the heart of the gray area or complexity in the rules,” Mr. Owens said. “Our view is that we do not believe that we violated the rules. If we did, then we’re going to make sure that it doesn’t happen again and we’re going to pay the money back so that there’s no question that we had good intentions.”

The revelations provided a glimpse of the way Washington influence works in a number of fields, including the burgeoning business of high-tech computer chip manufacturing, which could bring thousands of high-paying jobs to upstate New York. It also could prove to be a political problem for Mr. Owens, whose relationship with the founder of the lobbying group, former Republican U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, stretches back more than a decade.

On Thursday evening, the nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica posted a lengthy article concluding that Park Strategies, Mr. D’Amato’s firm, organized Mr. Owens’s trip. Extensive lobbyist involvement in organizing travel runs afoul of House ethics rules instituted in 2007.

Mr. Owens emphasized that his trip was packed with 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. meetings with military officials and high-tech companies.

His office received permission from the House Ethics Committee to take the trip, according to documents provided to the Times by Mr. Owens’s office. But the documents his staff provided to the committee did not mention the role of Park Strategies lobbyists in planning the trip. They listed the private Chinese Culture University as the trip’s sponsor.

A provision in the House rules allows for “de minimis” — that is, very limited — involvement by lobbyists in the trips. Mr. Owens said the lobbyists’ help in planning the trip fell into a “gray area” of how much contact is allowed.

“That’s what our honest belief is, understanding that others may view it differently,” Mr. Owens said. “Again, that’s why we’re paying the cost of the trip. We want to be sure that this issue is resolved in the most conservative fashion possible.”

Park Strategies lobbyists who work for the Taiwanese government helped Mr. Owens’s staff settle on a date for the trip and also briefed him on his itinerary. Mr. Owens said he spoke with Mr. D’Amato via telephone about the trip, but was not involved with its planning.

Craig Holman, a good-government lobbyist who helped write the law that applies to such trips, said the contact between Owens staffers and Park Strategies lobbyists went well beyond “de minimis” contact.

“This is not de minimis,” Mr. Holman told the Times. “This is arranging, orchestrating, planning, the whole kit and kaboodle. This is exactly what Jack Abramoff did.”

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff served jail time after he was convicted in 2006 on fraud, corruption and conspiracy charges; he peddled influence, in part, by flying lawmakers on pricey junkets all over the map, from the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., to golf getaways in Scotland.

Mr. Holman, who works for Public Citizen, said the “de minimis” exemption applies only if a lobbyist happens to attend the same event on a junket as a member of Congress.

Because Mr. Owens has pledged to pay back the Chinese Culture University, House ethics investigators need not look into his office, Mr. Holman said.

But investigators should take a long look at Park Strategies, Mr. Holman said.

“That certainly removes any need for an ethics investigation of Bill Owens,” Mr. Holman said of the reimbursement. “However, quite frankly, I really don’t think he was the one that violated the rules. It was the lobbyist.”

The trip included $520 daily hotel bills, $360 daily meals and first-class tickets for Mr. Owens and his wife, Jane. The trip’s total cost was $22,132.

In emails obtained by ProPublica, staffers for Mr. Owens asked lobbyists whether the trip would be permissible under a program that provides for cultural exchanges between countries.

“YES, it would be,” wrote Sean King, an official with Park Strategies and the son of Rep. Peter King, a Republican of Long Island.

The trip was not paid through that program, however. Another gray area caught up with his staff, too, Mr. Owens said: Trips universities pay for are exempt from rules preventing lobbyists from organizing them. But the exemption does not apply to foreign universities.

Officials at the House ethics office declined to comment.

The trip to Taiwan was not unusual, considering the growing opportunities for high-tech manufacturing in New York.

Indeed, just this week, President Barack Obama visited Albany to tout its role in making microchips.

Mr. Owens met with officials from the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., according to his itinerary. The corporation is part of the consortium of companies at SUNY Albany that President Obama touted.

In September, five technology companies, including Taiwan Semiconductor, announced a $4.4 billion plan to expand in New York, including at a State University of New York school in Oneida County.

Steven DiMeo, the president of an economic development agency called Mohawk Valley EDGE, said he briefed Mr. Owens’s staff before his visit to Taiwan on opportunities to bring a computer chip manufacturer to Marcy in Oneida County.

“Any time you’ve got somebody who goes to another country and starts talking up opportunities for people to invest in their state, it’s a positive thing,” Mr. DiMeo said. “It’s a good thing.”

Rep. Richard Hanna, R-Barneveld, was quoted in a Rome Sentinel story in December as saying he spoke with Mr. Owens about his trip to Taiwan. He said he was “pleased” that Taiwan’s government recognized the state’s efforts to bring high-tech jobs to upstate. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, made a trip to Taiwan in October organized by Park Strategies lobbyists, according to the ProPublica story. Unlike Mr. Owens’s visit, Mr. Reed’s trip was actually paid for through a cultural exchange program. Representatives for both Republican congressmen did not respond to requests for comment.

Park Strategies, meanwhile, said no rule was violated. Like Mr. Owens, a spokeswoman for the lobbying firm said contact was limited.

“We have consulted with counsel who has determined that our limited contact with Congressman Owens and his staff regarding this trip fell well within what is permissible under House rules,” spokeswoman Dana Sanneman said in an email message. “We reported and disclosed all contacts with Congressman Owens’s office as per our Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) obligations. There was never any attempt to evade or circumvent any law or regulation. In all cases, we complied with the letter and spirit of any and all relevant laws and regulations.”

Matthew A. Doheny, who will try to deny Mr. Owens a third term on Nov. 6, did not see the same gray area Mr. Owens does, suggesting “lobbyist buddies” arranged the trip, which he called “troubling,” although Mr. D’Amato is a former Republican senator from New York and Rep. Peter King, father of the Park Strategies employee, is a conservative Republican on the other side of the aisle from Mr. Owens.

“Bill Owens’ call to lobbyists — who are also, incidentally, campaign donors — to ‘super-size’ his trip is emblematic of everything that’s wrong in Washington,” said Jude R. Seymour, a spokesman for Mr. Doheny, in an email message.

Mr. Owens rejected suggestions that he’s too close to the lobbying firm.

“I think that our relationship with Park Strategies is the same that it is with any number of lobbying entities in Washington,” he said. “We interact with them on a wide variety of issues.”

Three members of Mr. D’Amato’s family, two of whom work for Park Strategies, donated to Mr. Owens’s campaign, a fact that, before the ProPublica story was written, the Owens staff was keen to highlight. In the late 1990s, Mr. Owens, then a private lawyer and a political independent, donated to Mr. D’Amato’s Senate campaign. Though the two graduated from the same high school on Long Island, Mr. Owens said they met much later, through former state Sen. Ron Stafford, who, like Mr. D’Amato, was a Republican. Mr. Stafford was a law partner of Mr. Owens.

Mr. Owens said nothing concrete has come from his meeting with the Taiwanese manufacturer — not yet, at least.

“You sow a seed today, it could take 10, 12 months to make it come to fruition,” he said.

Mr. Owens said he doesn’t think the trip will hurt him politically — no taxpayer funds were involved in paying for the trip or reimbursing the Taiwanese university, he said.

“I think the key here is addressing the issue, clearly, with my constituents,” he said.

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